Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Some holiday viewing (UK only)

With all the holiday madness, I haven't had much time for blogging, and won't for a few more days yet, sorry. I hope you're all having relaxing, enjoyable holidays!

In the meantime, here's some wonderful dance to entertain you for a few hours over the holidays.

Firstly, Matthew Bourne's Christmas, a spectacular review of Bourne's 25 year career, from well-known blockbusters like Swan Like and Nutcracker! to his earliest work. If you think dance is just stuffy nonsense, watch this and be proved wrong.

Dorian Grey
Edward Scissorhands

Then moving behind the scenes, Balletboyz: Next Generation is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of an elite troupe of  male dancers put together by Michael Nunn and William Trevit, culminating in a trip to Ethopia for a history-making collaboration with local dancers. It reminded me very much of the Performance In Place of War work, as regards the power of the arts to bring people together and overcome adversity. Find out more about them and the project at

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Guerrilla Girls Get Me Thinking About Women in Art

When I told my mum recently that I thought I was becoming quite a feminist, she replied that I can’t be, because I have a boyfriend! While this is quite an extreme case, misconceptions about what feminism means are incredibly common (see Feminist Frequency's wonderful video on the trope of the straw feminist). In class recently we discussed how feminists certainly aren’t one hegemonic group and that feminism is more difficult to define than I had thought. Different groups of feminists have different agendas ranging from thinking gender differences should be celebrated to thinking they should be ignored with women and men treated equally. However, all feminists would agree that women should not be denied the same privileges as men just because of their gender.

And that’s where Guerrilla Girls come in. Guerrilla Girls highlight the gender disparities in the art world and fight to rectify them. They publish books, protest at museums and galleries and give talks about female artists and their subordination. I saw their posters for the first time in the Tate Modern the other day and was struck by the statistics they presented. Oddly, my friend and I had just been discussing how many female nudes there still are in modern art, compared to just one male nude that we had seen in the gallery (Barkley Hendricks’ 1974 Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs), portraying a naked Afro-American to challenge the fear of black male sexuality prevalent in the States at the time).

I hadn’t ever really thought before about whether the pictures on the postcards and in the books I buy are produced by men or women (I’m usually just sucked in by the pretty colours!), but I was disappointed with what I found. In my postcard collection there are just three paintings by women out of about 50. That’s slightly better than the museum average, but not great. They are:

Bridget Riley – Nataraja 1993

Lyubov Popova – Portrait 1914-15

Alexandra Exter – City at Night 1913

Interestingly two of the three are Russian. Was Russia more excepting of women artists in the early 20th century than other countries?

There are thirteen female nudes, mainly because I have a lot of Picasso cards (seven nudes) as well as one creature that is evidently a naked female from Miró, and five in Patrick Caulfield’s response to Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon vues de derrière (1999). 
As for males, there are just two, another Picasso, this time Seated man resting on elbow (after Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass) (1962) [I can't find this picture on the internet so will take a photograph and upload it once I'm reunited with my camera] and another disturbing Miró creature in the charmingly named Man and Woman in front of a pile of excrement (1935).

 I assume museum shops stock significantly less postcards of art by women, and more of female nudes, as (even allowing for my Picasso fixation) I can’t imagine I recreated the Guerrilla Girls’ statistics on purpose.

Man Ray's 1933 portrait of Oppenheim,
 in the role of muse rather than creator
As for books, my Taschen Surrealism, incidentally written and edited by women, is a particularly good/bad example. It has just two pages dedicated to Meret Oppenheim, stating that she was accepted by the Surrealists “largely because of a brief love affair with Max Ernst in 1934”. Given that Ernst was a serial womaniser, by that logic half the female artists in Europe should have become Surrealists! In fact David Hopkins notes that, as well as Oppenheim, “Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning had romantic attachments to Max Ernst”. Yet she was one of the most innovative and influential creators of art using found objects, one of the Surrealist’s key aesthetic aims. She was also one of the few artists of the time who explored the possibility of female fetishism and erotic experiences, rather than just being the playthings of men. She deserves today to be more widely known and given more recognition in studies of Surrealism. But her contemporaries also deserved to be accepted by the Surrealists at the time and allowed to create works rather than just playing the muse. This is the double aim for which the Guerrilla Girls fight – for the recognition of women 
Oppenheim's My Nurse, 1936             
as artistic creators, against the subordination of women as artistic subjects.
Fur Breakfast, 1936, Oppenheim's most famous piece

Feeling somewhat ashamed by the results of my postcard test, I need to research more female artists. Off the top of my head, apart from those mentioned above, I can only name recent headline grabbers like Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Yoko Ono and Louise Bourgeois; Frida Kahlo, who's familiar to anyone learning Spanish; Georgia O’Keeffe; futurist Sonia Delauny (and that’s only from having studied futurism in depth); and my beloved Sophie Calle (more on her later). That’s more than I thought I had in my head when I started writing this but still ludicrously few. I will have to buy the Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art and educate myself!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Why I love Mozart l'Opéra Rock

If you're not French, you probably won't have heard of Mozart, l'Opéra Rock. If you are French, it would have been difficult for you to avoid it, given that it's toured up and down the country, the songs have been in the charts and even sung on the French versions of X Factor. The stars have become pop idols, unusually for musical theatre performers. Mozart is making musicals - and opera - cool (at least in France).

I first saw the show shortly after arriving in Paris and my French was nowhere near good enough to follow the dialogue and the lyrics but I was still totally engrossed in the music. It's a mixture of Mozart's own music, traditional musical fare from emotional ballads to rousing party scenes and more rocky music. It sounds strange, but it works perfectly. I also absolutely loved the costumes, an emo take on 18th century chic!

Over two years later, my French has significantly improved and I have listened to the show countless times, so I now appreciate the story as much as the music. It seems that Mozart not only had an incredible musical talent, but also a life that lends itself to drama. The musical chronicles his thwarted infatuation with gold-digging singer Aloysia Weber to finding true love with her sister Constance; the overwhelming presence of his father; his travels from Salzberg to Mannheim, Paris and finally Vienna, causing mischief and searching for fame; and of course his rivalry with Antonio Salieri and untimely death.

One of the main reasons that I love the show is it's a really great way to learn French. The songs are so catchy you can't get them out of your head and unless you want to walk around singing 'la la la' you will end up looking up the lyrics and searching for the meanings in dictionaries. At least that's what I did and learnt countless words that way. Much more fun than a text-book!

However, if you want to cheat, someone has kindly uploaded the show with English subtitles to YouTube:

Constant - After Us, Freedom

Yesterday I got to go to the Tate Modern, which is always a treat. I suspect over the next few days I'll be posting about lots of different fascinating things that I found there, but I'll start with the one picture that grabbed me more than any other: Constant's After Us, Freedom (1949).

I love the painting for two reasons. Firstly because I have a thing about art that looks like it was made by a demented child, whether you call it primitivism, naive art or neo-expressionism, from Miró to Basquiat. While many people would write it off as just scribbles that take no talent, it speaks to me much more than any realist painting ever could. In a recent lesson, one of my teachers was sharing his 'the obviously fake reveals far more truth than the seemingly real ever could' philosophy, and I agree with him. I think paintings like this are a projection of the inner workings of the artists mind, something you as a viewer can relate to.

The second reason I was hooked by this painting, was the name. It had originally been called For Us, Freedom, but in a 1988 letter, Constant admitted that the freedom he hoped for still hadn't come, and so the painting's name was to be changed:

After the five years of the German Occupation, during which hardly any work of other painters was to be seen, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam organised a large show of contemporary Dutch art, entitled ‘Kunst in vryheid' (Art in freedom). This exhibition was a deception by the lack of any creative freedom - the worst kind of academicism. Shortly after (in 1946) I met Asger Jorn in Paris, who appeared to be a related mind. Our friendship would lead, 2 years later, to the foundation of CoBrA. The title of this painting was originally ‘A Nous la Liberté' opposing the false ‘freedom' of the above mentioned exhibition (and what followed after). A few years later, CoBrA had fallen apart and many of its former members were classified in museums as ‘experimentals', forming a new ‘style' contradictory to the real aims of the movement - My disappointment about this development led me to change the title to ‘Après Nous la Liberté'. I changed the title to express my doubts about the possibility of ‘free art' in an unfree society, and, at the same time, my hopes for the freedom all men are longing for.

I'm particularly interested by the idea that the artist has no control over their art, just like the author and their text, as Barthes argues in The Death of the Author. While this is sometimes celebrated, as the viewer/reader is in control and can make of the piece whatever they want, I find it sad that art that was created as a cry for freedom ended up drained of life and hope by the art establishment.

 Constant, Modification (1949)

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Little Matador

Bullfighting is such a contentious issue that the human aspect often gets overlooked. Regardless of what you think of the torreo, last night's More4 documentary Little Matador (UK only, sorry!) provided a fascinating insight into why children are so drawn to bullfighting.

Rather than fame or money, it's family that motivates the three stars of this documentary, Michelito, Joel and Andrea. Michelito's father was a successful matador until a gorging ended his professional career, and left him only doing local fights. Michelito wants to bring honour back to the family and be everything his father couldn't be. He seems to be succeeding; at 10 years old he has one of the most promising young careers in Mexico. However, he seems very aware of this success and comes across so arrogant that you almost wish for him to fail (or maybe I'm just bitter!)

Equally unsympathetic is Andrea. Her father left her family for another woman in the States, so she wants to become a famous bullfighter to show him what he's missing. While I do feel sorry for her family situation, I couldn't help thinking there are a million ways Andrea could try to be famous and wanting to be a bullfighter is just stupid when every time she sees a bull she screams and runs away, then cries about her cowardice.

The real star for me was Joel. With no one who really cares about him, Joel finds affection from his bullfighting coach Ismael. Bullfighting for him isn't about fame or glory, it's about strengthening the bond with the one person who cares for him. The moment when Ismael leaves to find success in Spain and Joel has to go to a fight alone for the first time is just heartbreaking.

While some viewers may refuse to watch the programme for the scenes of animal cruelty (and it does get very nasty, I warn you), the human dramas are really involving - a very interesting watch.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Europe & Me Magazine - a new way of seeing Europe

Having taken European Studies as both my BA and my MA, one question I've asked and been asked more than any other is "What is Europe?" 

Europe is certainly getting a bad rep at the moment. When I mention I take European Studies, the response on the street is generally a negative comment about Europe, either the dire state of the Euro (even before the recent crisis) or how Brussels is ruining things for everyone in Britain. This is undoubtedly a symptom of British Euroscepticism, but I think a large part of the problem is that people have little emotional connection with Europe - they can't imagine the EU beyond economics and politics. In fact, when I got the chance to study identification with Europe in a research project at Sciences Po, I found that people had two very different images of Europe - the EU was far away, opaque and difficult to understand, while Europe more generally was linked to more positive images of experiences in different countries and with different people.

I therefore truly believe that for Europe to ever succeed as a stable, supranational project, we need to increase identification with Europe - and other Europeans. As a result of my interest in languages, and my time travelling and studying abroad, I am very aware of the similarities between myself and other Europeans and what knowledge of their cultures adds to my own, all of which makes me feel like I belong in Europe. It's vitally important that other young people get to know the bonds that unite them with Europe, to create a new generation of Europeans. That's where Europe & Me Magazine comes in.

Europe & Me is a quarterly magazine voluntarily written, edited and produced my young people from over 20 different countries. There aim is to write about all aspects of Europe, to give a more complete picture of Europe - the good and the bad - beyond official EU programmes (they are completely independent of the EU). They admit that Europe is incredibly hard to define geographically, historically or politically, so their motto is "Europe is a state of mind". The magazine is divided into different body parts:

The Brain considers serious issues related to Europe, the Heart is all about feeling and emotion, the Diaphragm laughs at the silly side of Europe, Baby is all about sex, and the Legs are "Europe on the move", highlighting European mobility.

I recommend that anyone who wants to understand what young, committed Europeans think it means to be European should read this magazine - issue #15 is out in just 12 days.

Peter Pan @ The Bristol Hippodrome

From the moment I saw the posters advertising David Hasselhoff as Captain Hook at the Bristol Hippodrome this Christmas, I knew I had to be there. So after lots of boyfriend badgering, we went to see it this Friday. As you would expect, it was ridiculously camp, but we really enjoyed ourselves :D

The Hoff was of course the main attraction. He was happy to make jokes at his own expense and somehow managed to wedge watching the bay, Neverland's Got Talent, Kit the talking car from Knight Rider and every German's favourite pop-song Jump in my Car into the two hour show. However, perhaps the best moment of the show was his adaptation of Hot Stuff... Hoff Stuff! 

Sadly though, there just didn't feel like enough Hoff - in an ideal world it would have been two hours of him parading around with his lustrous black curls and shining hook, but unfortunately far more of the show featured Andy Ford than Hasselhoff. Andy Ford was clearly there to appeal to the Bristol crowd with jokes about Melksham, Radstock and, above all, pasties. He also busted out the cheese with 'classics' like - "What's a pirate's favourite shop? Aaargos!". While at times it was awkwardly bad, you know with panto that you have to go with the cheese, and we found ourselves smiling and giggling along throughout, and gleefully following all the panto 'HE'S BEHIND YOU!" traditions like little kids. Robert Rees as Peter and Janine Esther Cowell as Wendy were good enough, suitably bright and bubbly for panto. The guy dressed up as first Nana the Dog, then the ticking crocodile, was a particular highlight! The only thing I really didn't like was the Motown trio singing half the songs that had at best tenuous links to the show. While it works brilliantly in Little Shop of Horrors, it's not right for Peter Pan(to). Nonetheless, I would recommend the show to anyone looking for a fun, uplifting night, if only to enjoy the charm of the Hoff.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

What place for culture in contemporary nationalism? A Galician example.

Yesterday I went to a talk by Dr Paula Portas Pérez about the contemporary narratives of the BNG, Galicia's nationalist bloc. As you would expect from a nationalist organisation, part of their rhetoric alludes to the 'protection' of Galician culture from external forces (Castile-dominated Spain used to be seen as the oppressor, but given the need to work with the Spanish government since the 1981 Statute of Autonomy, emphasis has shifted to 'threats' like the EU or, more generally, globalisation).
However, when I asked Paula what the BNG mean by culture, she said they only ever refer to the language. Speaking galego makes you Galician and therefore there should be language normalisation laws in place to protect and promote what is commonly seen as a language heading towards extinction. But beyond that, the BNG do not engage at all with the place of culture in Galician identity. It got me thinking, does culture still have a place in the construction of national identity? Have nationalists stopped creating a sense of national pride from great authors? Stopped celebrating traditions as a sign of uniqueness? Or has this cultural identity become so naturalised and internalised that people don't even question it any more? It seems that for the BNG people just are Galician and there's no need to question what that means. 

In The Sources of Nationalist IdeologyJohn Breuilly wryly observes that "[Nationalists'] claim to uniqueness is ultimately used to justify the claim to have a state just like any other", and that seems like the case here. In the fight to have the same political powers as other nations, the Galician nationalists seem to be losing sight of what makes Galicia distinct in the first place.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

No more 'Latin American' literature pleads Iwasaki

"Si Messi no ocupa plaza de extranjero en la Liga, nosotros no deberíamos hacerlo en la literatura"
"If Messi is not a foreigner in la Liga, then we shouldn't be foreigners in literature"
- Fernando Iwasaki

My new Twitter obsession is already proving itself useful for my academic life, as I just saw this article tweeted by Chirinos, Iwasaki pide ´acabar´ con la literatura latinoamericana from the Alicante newspaper Diario Información. The main point of the article is that at a conference on challenges in Latin American narrative in Alicante today (which I wish I'd been at!) Peruvian author Fernando Iwasaki argued that now is the time to stop talking about 'Latin American' literature and instead consider it just as 'Spanish language' literature. He maintains that there is little difference between him and authors from the Iberian peninsular, especially in terms of literary influences.

As I want to study Latin American literature, I wonder what Iwasaki would make of that. I certainly agree that we should not believe that Latin American literature can be narrowly defined, nor that it is completely incommensurable with literature from the peninsular. In fact, in my work I will argue that old European ideas of what Latin America should be - 'identity fables' that create national imaginaries, painting a picture of Latin America as exotic, magical, fundamentally different from Europe - are completely false and outdated. We cannot make a value judgement about a text on the provenance of its author, but only on the quality of the work. Nor is Latin America one homogeneous lump - each country, and within that regions, generations, classes, subcultures... - all have their own specificities which deserve to be explored.

 Nonetheless, I don't think that any author can ever completely cut themselves off from their country. Somewhere, even if unconsciously, lived experiences, political, cultural and societal differences, even different geographies must have some affect. While I don't believe in essentialist, innate differences, I do believe that we cannot help internalising certain social constructions. If I were to write a novel, on no matter what subject, something of my English upbringing and mores would seep through, distinguishing it from a novel by someone from the States or Canada or Australia, and in the same way I think not everyone writing in Spanish can be lumped into 'hispanophone literature'.

Chirinos, Dalí and Ants

I should really be asleep right now but when I turn out the lights and get into bed, my brain keeps whirring, telling me I can't get to sleep until I get to the bottom of the symbolism of ants. This probably sounds quite strange, but I've recently finished the quite exceptional El niño malo cuenta hasta cien y se retira by Juan Carlos Chirinos (which you will hear a lot about if you follow this blog as I hope to feature it in my future academic research) and one of the many things that struck me about it were the ants.

As a very short introduction (a more in depth one will come soon, possibly in the form of podcast), the story revolves around D.Jota who leaves Caracas for a journey to an exotic North. There he ends up staying with a young shepherdess named Fanny and her grandmother, near El Pueblo, where Svevo is the resident story teller. Ants figure prominently in two of his stories:

  • In the first, a woodcutter is about to chop down a tree when an ant appears from inside it and asks him not to, as it is home to the ants who provide food for the humans. They agree that the ants will vacate a tree each time he needs one and that way everyone is happy. It works out well until one day the woodcutter follows the ant to an enormous tree full of food. Overwhelmed by greed, the woodcutter chops down the tree and food rains on the village. The ant chastises the woodcutter for his ignorance, as the tree was the source of the food the ants brought to the villagers and now they have nothing left to bring them. Yet the ant sticks to his word and continues vacating trees to provide wood. One day the woodcutter finds out he is having a baby and goes to tell the ant the good news; the ant replies by giving the child it's name, Derdriu, which is the name of the grandmother.
  • In the second story, Svevo explains how Fanny's dog is the grandson of a dog that her grandfather Eugenio rescued from a giant ant in the middle of the forest.
Back in the present, D.Jota observes the ants storming his picnic and compares them to those back in Caracas.

Being a big fan of surrealism, I couldn't read these passages without thinking of Dalí, who made frequent use of ants in his work. I remember reading about a letter Dalí sent to Buñuel detailing the exact type of ants he wanted for Un Chien Andalou and how he imported them from Spain because the right type weren't to be found in France.

Chirinos is certainly aware of the surrealists' activities, as in one particularly touching scene D.Jota plays Exquisite Cadavers with his best friend (and more) Madaín. In this context, it's hard not to assume a link between the two, but what is the deeper symbolism?

I started googling psychoanalysis and ants, hoping Freud would have written a wonderful treatise about it somewhere. He didn't. I did however find various other mentions of ants in dream analysis. Most of them talk about ants as industrious, hard-working and patient creatures, stating that if you dream about ants you're likely to be productive the next day. That doesn't really seem to fit with either Chirinos' novel or Dalí's work. More interesting is the idea that ants symbolise death and decay, which certainly fits with the darker themes of El niño malo... I see them almost as a warning, creating a sense of foreboding, preparing the reader for the dark times ahead. I'd be very interested to know Chirinos' opinion on it though!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Spreading the word

So, as I'm new to this blogging business, I thought I ought to try and spread the word. After all, there's no point trying to inspire people to read books, watch films or listen to music if no-one is actually reading it!

To that end, I've finally succumbed to Twitter. I still haven't quite worked it out yet, but you can tweet me @KatieBrown161

I'm also trying to get this blog on to some listings sites, especially Technorati, which has a particularly impressive blog directory ( For that I need this code: DYXVY2APKEGT

Normal service will resume shortly!

Haji Khanem, the 'Lady of Colour'

Trying to escape the monotony of essay writing, I was browsing BBC News, when I found this video about Haji Khanem, an Iraqi woman who at the age of 75 has become a celebrated artist in Amsterdam where she now lives. They call her the 'Lady of Colour' and it's easy to see why; the bold, striking colours she uses in her paintings give them all a vibrant, exuberant feel.

Worth watching, both for the story of a woman overcoming the subservience in which she had to spend most of her life, and for the pretty colours.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Gareth Gwynn on The Pantheon of Heros

Last night I went to a live recording of a BBC Wales comedy radio show called The Pantheon of Heroes. The premise of the show is that comedian Elis James and his side-kick Ben Partridge go through the canon of great Welshmen and women trying to work out who's the most interesting. While it's packed with facts, it's also surprisingly funny - it is after all a comedy show, not a piece for BBC Learning.

Today I caught up with Gareth Gwynn, who writes the show with Elis and Ben, to discuss the writing process, as well as his own personal Welsh heroes.

 Gareth Gwynn on Pantheon of Heroes by Never A Frown

The Pantheon of Heroes will be on BBC Wales from Friday 13th January 2012.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Matthew Bourne In Conversation

Having just listened to the Matthew Bourne interview on Radio 2's Art Show from Friday night, I thought I should share my own interview here. It was a real honour to meet Matthew, as I whole heartedly agree that he is the greatest living choreographer, and a pleasure to discover that he is genuinely down-to-earth and so friendly.

We spoke about Nutcracker and how, 20 years on, it still seems so fresh, as well as the dark side of his work, what it's like choreographing musicals, the New Adventures Choreographer Award and much more.

 Matthew Bourne interview by Never A Frown

Nutcracker! will be running at Sadler's Wells in London until 22 January, while Oliver is at the Wales Millennium Centre until 21 Jan.

Gilbert Adair - cinéphile, novelist, dreamer

I've just seen that Gilbert Adair, writer and cinéphile, died on Thursday 8th December at the age of 66, and am deeply saddened by the news. As the obituaries and articles now appearing all attest, Adair was a great, self-deprecating wit and will be sorely missed.

(Picture from The Independent)

When I was 17 I discovered The Dreamers, Adair's own 2003 adaptation of his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. It's the semi-autobiographical story of Matthew (Michael Pitt), a young, naive American cinéphile in Paris, whose life is changed when he meets enigmatic twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel) at the Cinémathèque Française, becoming involved in an incestuous love triangle, getting swept up in the student riots of May '68 and generally making life imitate the art he so admires. While the film has been frequently criticised for the  'immoral' behaviour it portrays, both titles - The Dreamers and The Holy Innocents - prove that for Adair at least these characters are not to be condemned but empathised with.

I was instantly hooked on The Dreamers, watching it again and again, as well as devouring the book (in French, as I'm a Francophile just like Adair). I soon had no need to watch it, as I knew the entire film by heart! The intoxicating mixture of Parisian glamour, the excitement of May '68 and above all the utmost importance of cinema for these characters seemed to sum up everything I wanted at the time. As a suburban adolescent with a U-rated life, I felt just like Matthew, living vicariously through films, wishing I could join them at the Cinémathèque. When I eventually lived in Paris, I had Matthew's words ringing in my ears: "Only the French, only the French would house a cinema inside a palace". I was saddened that the Cinémathèque was no longer in the Palais Chaillot, nor a functioning cinema (although the new building in Bercy is visually arresting and I did get to see the robot from Metropolis there). I longed to enjoy the world of the film, the world in which Adair got to share, the cult of the cinema that flourished in 1960s Paris, where cinéphiles gathered at the front of the screen to catch images before they were diluted and voraciously discussed them afterwards, a world a million miles away from the modern Cineplex.

Through The Dreamers I discovered May '68, and a whole world of French history and culture, so it will always have a special place in my heart. But I was so caught up in this world of films, art, social history and politics that I didn't think much more about Adair. It was only years later when studying Georges Perec at university that I discovered that Adair had, to universal awe and acclaim, translated Perec's La Disparition. This is no mean feat as both the original and Adair's translation, A Void, are about 300 pages written completely without the letter E. While the name Adair meant nothing to the rest of my classmates, I was taken back to The Dreamers and struck by just how multi-talented Adair really was.

But this is still just a tiny part of Adair's vast oeuvre. His love of films is expressed in his time as Chief Film Critic for The Independent and a large collection of film criticism books, including the widely acclaimed Flickers - 100 pictures from 100 years of cinema, accompanied by typically acerbic essays. He wrote many other novels, including pastiches of Agatha Christie, The Death of The Author playing on Barthes' famous quotation, and most notably Love and Death in Long Island, which was made into a film staring John Hurt and is currently being adapted to the stage. I regret not yet having read more of Adair's work and look forward to enjoying his celebrated self-deprecating wit. But right now I'm off to watch The Dreamers again.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Getting to know Johann Gottfried Herder

Today (other than investigating the casting of the new Les Mis film, more on that later), I have spent the day getting acquainted with Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher seen as 'the father of nationalism, historicism and the Volksgeist' (Isaiah Berlin). Having not really studied much philosophy, I was barely aware of Herder before a few weeks ago. Now, I'm hooked.

While he's not the most attractive man, he writes with such passion and excitement (albeit sometimes at the expense of clarity) that you can't help but be swept along with it. And anyone with enough self-deprecating humour to call on of their first works Yet Another Philosophy of History is worth note in my book.

So, why this sudden interest in Herder? I'm currently working on an essay on Galician cultural identity, and my tutor Dr Craig Patterson (one of the most enthusiastic defenders of Galicia as a distinct cultural entity, and himself a very interesting read) vehemently insisted that I read Herder in preparation. I was confused - what did a late 18th century German have to do with 20th century Galicia? - but I duly obliged and now realise that not only is his writing relevant to 20th century Galicia, but to my very 21st century academic interests. It's as if he wrote what I have always felt but never really expressed, but I must remember that over 200 years ago, ideas like popularism, expressionism and especially pluralism were not only new, but clearly opposed to the dominant philosophical beliefs.

While I could write for hours about these ideas, I'll stick to just a few key points that really struck me.

Herder strongly believed that there was no such thing as a 'chosen people', or a particular civilization, past or present, that is superior to any other. There is no point in wishing to return to the high point of Ancient Greece, or in trying to force Western morals on indigenous communities as all cultures are incommensurable and only truly function as a product of their historical, geographical and social circumstances. He insisted on recognising the value of every culture, even if we don't understand it, because it is only within their native culture that people can fully achieve self-expression.

Perhaps my favourite of Herder's ideas is that everything we do, especially art, is a form of self-expression. While artists may insist that they make 'art for art's sake', Herder would argue that, even if it is unconsciously, we cannot help but reveal all of our personality in what we make, what we do.
"Art is a voice speaking, rather than creating an object"
Because we do not live in isolation, who we are is influenced by our social relations. Thus our expressions do not just reveal our personality, but that of the community in which we live. As someone who wants to spend my life reading, watching films, looking at art, listening to music and then writing about what that says about the creator and their community, it's nice to have someone support this idea so eloquently.

Herder argues that language developed along with human powers of reason; as we began to recognise things by their distinguishing features, we create an internal language. As societies grow, the need for communication means these languages are shared, but because everyone has a different internal word for the same object, languages are full of synonyms. At the same time, there are no words for abstract concepts because we cannot recognise and distinguish these. Thus:
"With all its inadequacies in essentials, it has the greatest unnecessary abundance".
In short, what each language allows for, and what it doesn't, reveals a great deal about the lives, customs, beliefs and social structures of different cultures, so each language should be protected and cherished. If he could witness the extinction of languages across the world by the increasing dominance of English and other major languages, I'm sure Herder would turn in his grave!

For a clear and concise introduction to the originality of Herder's ideas, I recommend Isaiah Berlin's Vico & Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Diego Rivera and Google

So today was the 125th 'birthday' of celebrated Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. To honour the occasion, Google's doodle of the day portrayed Rivera creating one of his great public murals:
The question is, what would Rivera think of it? 

On the one hand, he was an active communist, so it could be assumed that he would be opposed to the appropriation of his work and character by one of the biggest corporations in the world.

However, the reason Rivera painted immense murals on public buildings was because he believed that art should not be locked away in galleries for the enjoyment of the elites, but available for everyone. Public art was a means of educating the people about Mexican history and identity. In that spirit, perhaps Rivera would approve of the doodle. After all, what is more public than the internet? And if the doodle inspired people who previously had not heard of Rivera before to investigate his work and then to delve further into the issues of the Mexican revolution and questions of identity (ethnic mestizaje, cultural tensions between the modern and the traditional, the American and the indigenous), then it would be achieving what Rivera set out to do all those years ago.

A speedy review of Merrily We Roll Along @ Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical retracing the failed friendships and corporate sell-out of composer turned movie producer Franklin Shepherd isn’t one of his best-known, probably because it was a spectacular flop when it first arrived on Broadway, closing after just 16 performances. Yet the songs have lived on, especially the heartbreaking We Had a Good Thing Going and Not a Day Goes By. Now the students at the RWCMD prove what a wonderful show this is, moving effortlessly from laugh out loud comedy moments to powerful drama, packing a serious emotional punch. As the musical takes us back in time, the young cast, lead by Nicky Taliesin (Frank), Richard Russell Edwards (Frank’s old best friend and lyricist Charley) and Helena-May Harrison (the third leg of the tripod and writer turned alcoholic drama critic Mary) masterfully take the characters from their world-weariness and regrets at the beginning to their youthful enthusiasm at the end. Harrison was a particular highlight: while Mary could very easily swerve into caricature, Harrison keeps her utterly believable. Overall, I was very impressed by the standard of the production and look forward to forthcoming productions at the RWCMD.

A longer, although much more rambly review, is available here:   Xpress Culture 5/12/11 by Never A Frown 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Performance In Place of War

This is going to be one of the pointing out interesting things blogs today, rather than any real analysis.

Today, as part of the Beacon For Wales project (, itself part of a larger plan for increasing academic public engagement,, Professor James Thompson from the University of Manchester came to Cardiff University to talk about his work on the role of theatre In Place of War.

The project has been going on for over 10 years now, working with theatre artists living and working in warzones. Prof Thompson's idea of public engagement is a novel one, and one that really ought to be adopted by more academics. Instead of researching, thinking and then imparting wisdom in the traditional academic way, Thomson sees public engagement at the very heart of his work. Over the years, Thompson and his team have studied the importance of theatre in the very places where it is all too easy to assume that theatre would not exist, countries like Kosovo, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two central questions fuel this research:
     - Why is there theatre in the war zone?
     - Why do academics assume there isn't?
Over the years, Thompson and his team have tried to answer these questions by following and documenting the work of over 300 theatre companies in almost every major warzone. You can find details of most of these on the In Place of War website - it's well worth spending some time on this site as the wealth of different programmes and what they achieve is fascinating. The project has also lead to a book:

However, it's not all about documenting and analysing the performances and theatre groups, but rather facilitating them and fostering communication between the disparate groups. Thomson reports that what the groups he works with find most useful is always the chance to interact with groups from other warzones around the world, to compare experiences and share good practice. Unsurprisingly, artists and performers in warzones can feel very isolated.

What was most interesting to me was the distinction between functional and diversionary theatre. That is, academics are traditionally interested in theatre that serves some purposes, facilitating public debates about contentious issues, educating or working through trauma. However, at the heart of the conflict, and especially when working with children, what is really necessary is theatre which distracts from the violence, allowing victims to relax and enjoy themselves. Rather than creating a false serious/escapist dialectic, Thompson insists that popular, escapist work should be valued and recognised as a valid response to the moment.

Professor Thompson's talk will soon be uploaded to the Beacon for Wales site. I recommend you watch it and explore the In Place of War website.

What is Culture?

It's a good question and one that I've encountered again and again in class and on the radio. An anthropologist would say that culture is everything that makes us human, that isn't the result of science. Different groups - tribes, nations, social classes, generations - can be said to have a different 'culture', encompassing ways of expressing themselves, rituals, beliefs. However, in every day parlance, culture is often taken to mean 'high culture': classical painting, sculpture, opera, ballet, auteur cinema. What I'm interested is somewhere in between: all kinds of artistic expression, including that high culture, but also popular culture, comedy, rom-coms, pulp fiction, musicals, graffiti - things that are often written off by the self-proclaimed defenders of 'culture' (although graffiti for one seems to be becoming rather establishment these days...).

'Culture' is such a loaded term that I have been criticised for being elitist in calling my radio show The Culture Show. Yet as much as I tried to avoid the perils of the word culture (and also the stealing from BBC2 implied in the name), there was no other word that conveyed the huge range of things I want to talk about: literature, music, theatre, dance, art and films of all kinds. So culture it is.

But as I've established, culture is a scarily vast term. So what exactly do I want to do? Well, as I'm forced to narrow my interests into some form of coherent PhD proposal, I'm not ready to let the others go just yet, so this is a place for me to consider cultural things that interest me. Sometimes that might just be 'This play/exhibition/film is awesome, go see/watch!', sometimes it might be an interview with someone that I've been lucky enough to meet through the radio. But what really gets me going is cultural analysis, so there will mainly be musings on what can be learnt from the book/film/musical/picture in question. I've always had incredibly multi-disciplinary interests (which is why I've always taken the broadest academic path, nothing can be vaguer than 'European Studies' which doesn't even know where the limits of 'Europe' are), and what I'm learning in class will undoubtedly prompt reflections here, so expect the following to appear somewhere:
-Questioning 'identity' in all its forms
-Nationalism, national identity and foundational myths
-Cultural mobility/intertextuality
-Translation and the politics thereof
-Foulcault and discursive techniques
-Orientalism and post-colonialism
...and probably a whole lot more! As for the source of materials, Spanish and French speaking countries will feature heavily, but I have spent the last 5 years studying 'Europe' so those influences will certainly crop up too, and as I currently live in Cardiff, how could I not be fascinated by Welsh culture?

I hope this will be not just interdisciplinary but multi-media. As well written ramblings, I will be putting my finely honed talking into a microphone skills to good use making podcasts, especially when visuals aren't essential. And when I eventually learn to use my camera, I hope to post videos too. And finally, I hope that all this inspires you to check out some of the things I talk about. My passion for languages, for travel, for research, for cultural analysis, was inspired by the films, books, music, theatre and art which I discovered one way or another and never cease to fascinate me. I hope some of them will fascinate you too.