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So far Zuidervaart has argued that the Arts are needed, but who should pay for them? And what is the economic argument for doing so? This is what Zuidervaart calls his Public Justice Premise, the second premise of the three found in his book ‘Art In Public’.

Zuidervaart argues that Civil Society should be given the money and space it needs to do its job properly – the resources it needs to produce Solidarity.

The government is only fundamentally satisfied when it knows it has dispensed public justice. For its own fulfilment, the government must discharge its obligation to protect Civil Society from any encroachments on its natural tasks, and provide the resources to undertake them properly. Another example; a judge may demand that prisons be adequately supplied to send people to for punishment and to ensure they don’t appear in front of his bench again. This principle leads to premise number three, the Arts Organisation Premise. Zuidervaart claims that Arts Organisations are the best channel for discharging this government responsibility, which means they deserve some protection from Market Forces and enough money to produce authentic Solidarity.

I like these premises for two reasons. They allow public money to be used for public service without creating a refuge for elitist art at National Lottery player’s expense. Under the current system the arts are paid for by people who neither experience them directly nor can they really afford to pay for them. Their lottery money is capital that could indeed change their lot, if accumulated, but is instead wasted on a fantasy that they might effortlessly escape their lot. The profits subsidise arts that those involved with could afford, but would rather not pay for because they don’t like them that much. But this system continues because it is also true that a system of consumer choice would not improve quality or ‘participation’, and the ghost of something valuable is detectable in the arts. With a consumer choice, if there is a problem you remove yourself and choose a different supplier. But within Civil Society if there is a problem you have to get more, not less, involved.

But most importantly, Zuidervaart has described art as a public good worth paying for, which is my personal litmus test for this topic. Even if art costs money, it is money well spent. Even without attending the arts, all citizens benefit from a climate of freedom. And this is the only book I’ve ever read to argue this persuasively. He dismisses all the efficiency, equity, merit good or market failure arguments, which just try and find an economic excuse for subsidising arts. Despite the good intentions, these excuses just put the arts at the mercy of market values, and remove them from the protection of their own internal logic, like an endangered species put into an economic logic-zoo deprived of its own natural philosophical environment. Instead, Zuidervaart exposes a philosophical reality that we have to protect from urgent demands on the budget or we risk becoming less civilised in real terms.

If you are in doubt as to Civil Society’s importance, in keeping the democratic air we breathe unpolluted, let me refer you to the alternative. In May, a memo from the new Chinese president Xi Jinping was leaked (Taipei Times Wed, May 22, 2013). It referred to “seven evil subjects” to be driven out of Chinese universities. Included was the phrase “civil society”. Today’s debate, which we take for granted, will not be permitted in China. It will, however, be debated at Harvard where Prof Michael Sandel teaches, and it is rumoured Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze has been studying since 2010.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). One more part will follow.

We made two deluxe Solander Boxes for two key projects that the Poetry Library are exhibiting with Simon Armitage’s Poetry Parnassus in the next few weeks in the Poetry Library. We worked closely with risk-enamoured Head Librarian Chris McCabe and logophile curator Nick Dubois on boxes that will archive hundreds of poems:

‘Polip Poems‘ came out of the Polip Literature festival in Prishtina and is currently on show in the Library.

‘The World Record’ sees hundreds of Parnassus poets from around the world writing their poem on paper  made from fibres gathered from around the globe.

Furthermore, we brought one of our travelling screens to print Au in situ on the luxury writing desk that will be autographed by every visiting poet from around the world who is taking part in the Parnassus.

Conlon Nancarrow at Purcell Room

April 22nd, 2012 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Yesterday we took the rare opportunity to see and hear some of  Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player-piano at the Southbank Centre. Nancarrow punched his own music rolls, writing music that suited the technology itself, rather than simply using it to approximate a professional pianist. The machine in action was something like a life-support machine with all its pistons, pneumatics and paper cylinders.  I hope it doesn’t get relegated to the basement now SBC own it. I hope we’ll see Nancarrow appearing in their general programming.

Here is an extract from a poem of mine that makes mention of Nancarrow. It will appear in a book we’ll be publishing next month. (It is his centenary year, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more of him). The poem is a reported monologue from a fireworks display designer who has been commissioned to make a display set to Nancarrow’s avant-garde music.

Green Man Interchange

‘I am profoundly movedby the thought,’
says my companion,
‘That Belisha,
himself a Jewish émigré,
should be so concerned with the welfare of
British children as
they cross the roads
in the Mainland and
Her territories.

And is the zebra crossing not inextricably linked
with the safe passage of the Children of Israel through the Sea?
And is the pillar of fire not an antetype of our Belisha Beacon?
And have you noticed that each keeps its own time?
Is this not a mischevious rebellion
against the tyrranical regimes that girded the globe
at the time of their genesis?
A thaw in the Atomic Age?
And indeed; a defiant mien against the tyrrany of the stars!
The Atomic Clock is lax next
to the relentless pulsar.
All of deep space has synchronised like clocks that share a hallway.
But not so the Earth and Her Belisha Beacons.

These things call me to question my trade.
Do I serve the enemy? (I am speaking of physics).
Is it true that the titilating   jouissance of fireworks;
the golden spermatazoa of Zeus’ holy groin
spread liberally in the night sky with much fizzing;
it all seems to point to a joyful abandonment of time pieces.
But mark my words!
This is the closest point of contact
between warfare and the entertainment industry!
A barrage on the public!
A barrage on the public place!
A barrage on the public purse!
A circus purchased with bread!

All comedy belongs to the fifth column.
Comics occupy the column inches,
they make us laugh at things that are not funny.
At least the working man once mocked his Mother-in-Law
but stoked vengeance at the coalface.

But I am speaking of fireworks;
Since when was entropy fit for children’s parties?
They illuminate all discredited things!
In truth,’
says my companion,
‘I face a most arduous commission:
for the centenary of the birth of Nancarrow,
an American of the Avant Garde,
A display set to his music (of the most peculiar order,
it is not what I call melody.)
It has become clear as I plot this on my laptop computer
that my composition must be of his calibre, even.
There is guile in his manuscript that the 1812 Overture does not demand;
nobody requires that the fireworks be anything more than illustrative.
But with Nancarrow the silence is as much a part of the music as the notes.
And here the dark must be as competently arranged as the light.
And here we approach the paradox at the heart of fireworks:

The inequality between the speed of sound and light.

Let me explain,’
says my companion,
‘With what will the music synchronise?
The flash of light on your retina or
the tapping of the hammer and the stirrup and the drum?
This appears to be a small problem at first, I know,’
says my companion,
‘But it soon grows to occupy the whole mind
as a kind of anxiety
in my line of work.
It is the difference between sound and sense,
the myth of the mind in the body,
the heart of all dischord
Babel,
Quatre Bras,
Kursk
(Never forget;
the greatest gatherings of tongues have always been on the battlefields!)
and the problem of the individual in the State,
the child and the Motherland,
don’t ask me which is which,
I simply mean the impossibility of reconciling things.
Something has to give.
Some things will never suffer destruction.
And people ooh and aah at this?
It is no more surprising than the fact of the gladiatorial games
I suppose.
In its day, the tower of Babel was only two storeys high.

I feel a kinship,’
says my companion,
‘This being N’s dilemma;
An insignificant man, bereft of funding and column inches,
never young and foolish;
a threat between the buttering of toast and his bedtime toilet.
His arrangement of notes on the page raised questions
in the Department of State.
Friendless in Mexico
he turned to the player piano,
(they have more fingers anyway).
I can well imagine a dead planet, where
the missing pianists only remain as a tendency towards ten notes at a time.
He set out to increase the tempo of the revolutions of time,
tending towards the human hand.

I need a new firework for my arsenal,
one of refinement.
I am currently killing time,
but I will drive until evening,’
says my companion,
‘And arrive just after nightfall at the wholesaler.
They will greet me with a nod and
a cup of decaf tea
and they will collapse a neutron star for my benefit.
I am talking of a display, for one, of a single firework.
I will pass judgement on its melancholy embers.

Can we call time on this fiction tonight?

I would love to tell that old alchemist that base metals
indeed turn into gold.
But only in a dying star over an immense passage of time.

We should indeed preserve our Uranium.

Clegg’s Last Tape

May 6th, 2010 | Posted by David Barnes in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

So it emerges that Nick Clegg has been a Samuel Beckett fan all along. I couldn’t help wondering what an election scripted by Beckett would look like:

The stage light slowly illuminates a rocky plateau. Buried in pebbles up to their necks are BROWN, CLEG and CAM.

BROWN. Finished, all finished now. Old Brown’s gone down, down to the ground.

CLEG. The old parties.

CAM. Yes, the old parties, the old times, just as it was back on the playing fields, the old times, boat rocking slowly under Magdalen Bridge, the old times, the old days. Why can’t things be like they used to be?

BROWN. Finished, all gone, a disaster.

CLEG. There they go again.

CAM. The old days, the old times, the old parties, tra-la-la-la-la. Why can’t I be Prime Minister?

All three sink further into the stones. A spotlight reveals a hung parliament, festooned with paper MPs.

BROWN. All is lost. Woe, woe!

CAM. Why can’t I be Prime Minister? I want to be Prime Minister!

Enter VOTERS.

VOTERS. Let’s go.

Nobody moves.

Beckett’s endings provide us with a range of possible responses to electoral outcomes. The novel The Unnameable ends with the resigned but ambiguous ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ from the unnamed narrator. This is rather more stoical and less hysterical than the Tories’ ‘We can’t go on like this’. At the close of Endgame, all Hamm can be certain of is his handkerchief – the ‘old stancher’ – which survives. Dry your eyes, Dave. You too, Gordon.

With all the uncertainties of the current political environment, Beckett leaves us, like poor Winnie who still sings while buried up to her neck at the end of Happy Days, to face the music and be grateful. As the wise (or not) journalist said, ‘The only certainty here is that everything is uncertain’.

The other week I gave a lecture (the subject of which is not the subject of this blog) at the Universettee. As its name suggests, the Universettee is interested in shifting the seat of learning from the academy to the home – university to universettee. It’s a university of the comfy chair, and takes place in various people’s houses and flats around London. Lecturers are not paid, and neither are those who host the lectures.

Later on in the same week, I attended a concert. We arrived at a house in Hackney, deposited our coats on top of the bed as we would at a party, and were serenaded with Dvorak, Brahms and Schuman in a downstairs room. Interval drinks and nibbles were informal. Again, the event was free. Both evenings had the feel of a party, and involved the free and easy exchange of thoughts and culture in a homely setting.

It seems to me that these groups, events and projects are forming a new kind of public space – or, perhaps, are drawing our attention to the potential of the public space. For the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas the ‘public sphere’ could be a space for the radical renewing of democracy. Free from the atmosphere of oppression and coercion or the pressures of the bourgeois market, the ‘public sphere’ might be an exciting clamour of voices and ideas.
Perhaps – and only perhaps, because I teach in a university and see their essential value – the removing of the pressured culture of the academy can renew a practical and impassioned curiosity. Perhaps the ability to see a concert outside of its normal context – a context that to some extent is historically conditioned and not absolute – allows listeners to truly grapple with the music.

In other words, there may sometimes be a weight of expectation and rarification that hangs in the air of university halls, concert auditoriums, art galleries and the like. This isn’t a call for dumbing down, nor for a kind of hideous mercantilising of all cultural activity, as Peter Mandelson seems intent on pursuing. His proposals to tie university funding to some sort of basic economic performance indicator will kill scholarship, which thrives on the obscure.

What I am saying is that grand spaces – big institutional public spaces – sometimes terrify or oppress. We don’t want to and shouldn’t get rid of these spaces. But sometimes, just sometimes, shifting the centre of gravity can re-energise our engagement with ‘culture’.  Bringing the ‘public sphere’ into the private space once in a while may just enable us to re-evaluate the place and role of ‘culture’ in contemporary Britain.

Laurence fondles the leather-effect binding of his complete works of Shakespeare, ‘a part of our heritage’, simultaneously using the volumes to display his refinement and his guest’s lack of taste. If the book goes digital, perhaps it makes this act of snobbery performed in Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ less likely.

A couple of new technical advances have made the newspapers recently. Amazon can turn your i-Phone into an e-book  for free with their Kindle software. 300,000 books are available. A swipe of your finger re-enacts the turning of paper pages digitally. The Nintendo DS also now has a ‘game’ that allows you to read hundreds of classic novels, while the speakers emit the crackle of a mimetic fireplace. The irony is that this sound-effect will actually consume energy created by the burning of coal many miles away. Sound, but no heat. Do paperbacks store more CO2 than online books constantly consume – backed up in several locations at once and always open? But the wastefulness of paper books wasn’t the only assumption in the print and radio discussions prompted by these announcements.

Panels, such as on Radio 4’s Open Book, could have explored the properties of these inventions logically; their benefits and defecits compared to paper books. Instead we witness a sort of ‘conversation re-enactment society’, general assumptions uncritically repeated in programmes dominated by nostalgia. It occurs to me that what is lacking in these commentaries is a precise analysis of the properties of each kind of reading platform.

The most obvious misconception is that paperback books such as Penguins perform an archival role. In fact they strip out many parts of the book-machine to make them competitive in price. This was the Penguin revolution; quality texts at an affordable price. An archival book has hard covers, lifting the pages above the acidic shelf. The paper is acid free. The pages are folded and stitched. There are endpapers that act like a doormat for the fingers. Bands support the book block itself. The spine may be arched to support a thicker book as it hangs above the shelf. The edges may even be gilded with stainless gold leaf. All these processes are removed in the paperback. But this is not a complaint. One might even argue that most paperbacks last too long. Will a Dan Brown be read and re-read? Will it have notes scribbled in the margin? Possibly by conspiracy theorists, but they probably use pile upon pile of notebooks instead.  Many American journals and academic books continue to make use of the more enduring features; we should not imagine that a paperback and an academic tome are the same machine because they both use paper. They don’t even use the same paper.

In academic research the electronic book brings many advantages, especially in note-taking, cutting and pasting, live-searches of the text better than any index. Hyperlinks to other texts and information… However, this brings to light other possibilities routinely overlooked in the media. Our regard for texts as concrete and unchangable and our definitions of authorship are shaped by the fact that a book is printed and then that is that. If another edition is made, minor changes occur, but with the text remaining live, what stops the reader intervening? Why shouldn’t I re-write one of my own books one morning, even after publication? A physical restraint has become a matter of etiquette. Is this the constant positive refinement of the evolutionary process or the constant revisionism of the Totalitarian view of History? All history adopts the needs of the Party. But I suppose for a panel talking for twenty minutes about the joy of sniffing pages, the territory of the ‘exploded book’ would have caused seizures.

The problem with the e-book is that it is not going far enough. It does not threaten the book, be it the archival machine, the disposable paperback or something inbetween. Obsolescence merely frees these formats up for new purposes. This is also the formative time for the form of the e-book, but it is nostalgia for the paper reading experience that is threatening to make e-reading inadequate. Manufacturers should stop trying to make e-readers look like books, with corny page-turning animations. If they are convenient we will use them. But book design is a phenomenological tradition that takes careful evaluation. Traditionally the central margin of the left page is set and then the top, outside, and foot margins increase in size as you go round by 20%. The opposite is the case for the facing page. This double spread has been around since Medieval times and forms part of the reading experience. It gives room for your thumbs. Yet electronic readers are often single column affairs. What does this imply? Design is not just a matter of paper vs. screen glare.

The reality is that the possibilities for publishing, text composition, and authorship are so radically different that we can’t even see them. We’re even doing some of them already without realising.  This period is a massive opportunity for small presses. Without the confusion of the paperback as primary text-delivery platform, people are grasping that there is a particular place for a well made paper book with original content; they are actually seeing what a book is for the first time. This is the opposite of nostalgia, it is the grasping of the relevant place for a technology in our time. In the same vein we should jettison the nostalgia for paperbacks and ask ourselves which features do we not want to lose in the next generation of electronic reading technology, making it a superior format to the paperback for the quick read. If we continue to encourage the crude approximations of page turning and dog-earing instead of platforms equipped for a transfigured compositional and reading industry, we are losing the essence of traditional book technology. It is like saying you will buy a car, but only if it looks like a horse and is limited to four miles an hour. And it’s not like we shot all the horses.

Laurence returns the complete works of Shakespeare to the shelf saying, ‘Of course, not the kind of thing you can actually read…’ I suspect he is the intended audience for the Nintendo DS Classics Library. It probably won’t be long before someone is showing me theirs and demonstrating how it re-creates the sound of an actual log-fire. Or is it the gentle crackle of a book-burning?

Sometimes you look at a name and you just know there is an anagram in there.

‘Tiger Woods’ also helps us ponder the danger of hubris with ‘I god’s tower’ and the inevitability of decay with ‘grows to die’, much like many celebrity careers.

Hearing David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Party conference, I felt the urge to liberate the avant-garde, existentialist poem that lay behind the surface, a hidden subtext:

I want to get straight
To the point.
We all know
What I want to talk about.
Don’t get me wrong,
I’m ready for that
But I tell you this.
I know that.
I know about
Liam Fox.
We need a strategy.
We need to be clear.
Frankly, time is short.
And I have something
Else to say.

We could have played it safe.
When I stood on that stage
It was to lead Eric Pickles.
I am not a complicated person.
I have some simple beliefs.

I want everyone
To understand
That’s twice as big.
Right now.
We have three choices.
I know there are some who say:
PENSIONERS.

I got an email.
But it never happens.
Well.
Let’s be clear.
I always put the same questions
To attractive Ken Clarke.

It is a plan to boost.
This is what it means.
There’s nothing to stop me.

In Britain today
We must be the people
Who release Gordon Brown.

We’ll start with what is most important.
I believe that a stable cannot be neutral.
I don’t live in some fantasy land.
It’s about what we all do.
It’s about the way we live.
It’s about our crazy signals.

But no –
It’s not funny.
We have got to turn it around
We’re going to make it clear
So we have to reform
So we will never change
But that doesn’t mean
But it’s not a machine
It has got to stop
That’s why we can look the British people in the eye and say…
the progressive thing to do in a way that brings the country together showing

leadership at the top we’re all in this together which is why we’ll have made

some tough choices in British politics is out of date and it has to

meet challenges head on and show tough country and

together leadership and community tough and

challenges meet we’ll make some British

progressive politics head challenge

family tough challenge country

challenge challenge challenge

More on the experimental modernism of David Cameron later.

Poppycock

November 9th, 2009 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The tale is told of a propaganda film where Stalin, wandering along a country lane enjoying the sunshine, comes across a peasant with a broken down tractor. Bizarrely he rolls up his sleeves, inspects the engine and soon it is up and running again. The intention of the propagandist is clear but, as Zizek has pointed out, what the film ends up provoking us to wonder is what kind of system is this that is so broken that the head of state needs to roam the countryside replacing spark plugs and getting cats out of trees.

I recall this story today hearing the news about ‘the Brown blur’, our PM, who has failed to get the facts straight in a hand-written note of condolence to a mother whose son was killed in Afghanistan. But of course the story as reported misses the point, merely describing his ineptitude and provoking a debate over whether he really cares or not. What we should be asking is how a PM should demonstrate his care. He should certainly not be writing little notes. How about forming a war cabinet? Or describing more specific and achievable war aims? How about withdrawing from the process of corrupt ‘State Building’? More troops and equipment would go down well with all service families.

What the row does successfully suggest, though, is that Brown’s focus is on scoring political points with the war instead of winning it. Each decision is weighed against electoral concerns rather than facing up to the cost of securing one’s borders. What enrages me on another Remembrance Day is that we persist in the nineteenth century practice of recruiting the economically disadvantaged, preferably from the North, so Middle Class w***ers can get on with selling houses to each other blissfully ignorant of the process by which we remain safe in our beds. This leads to a situation where war aims are not realised because they make the voters uncomfortable. The (next)  PM must redefine war aims immediately, decide if we can afford to pull out on the basis of the international risks, and then put in place the resources to win.

The poppy has become an increasingly ironic symbol. A reminder of the waste of a generation in the trenches, it has now come full circle to Afghanistan, where, as in India, the British government in collaboration with the East India Co. cultivated an illegal Opium Trade designed to bypass Chinese sovereignty and make lots of money. The poppy fields there were part of the deliberate destabilisation of the region for profit. And indeed the country was also the buffer zone between the Raj and the Russian Empire. May the poppy serve not only as a reminder of the government’s failure to remember not to waste young lives for the sake of votes, but also a reminder that we are are literally and metaphorically reaping what they sowed over a hundred years ago.

‘If you walk with Jesus
he’s going to save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole’.

As the whole of the chattering classes emerges bereft from the last series of the American police drama The Wire (screened on BBC2 years after the original series ran in the States), it’s worth asking what, if anything, the series’ message was. The lines quoted above are from its theme tune, the Tom Waits song ‘Down in the Hole’.

‘Down in the Hole’ itself is taken from Waits’ album Frank’s Wild Years, a work that reflects musical influences such as cabaret and Kurt Weill’s musical theatre. As such, ‘Down in the Hole’ is performed in the persona of a crazed preacher, one of many ‘voices’ that Waits adopts on the album. In this sense, the song appears to ‘perform’ belief, the lyrics a theatricalisation of faith. Waits seems to perform what it is like to believe in Jesus (and the devil) rather than actually believing in them.

So we might think of Waits’ song, and The Wire, as exercising a sort of ironic distancing. In the ‘real world’, simplistic beliefs about morality, good and evil, and God are naïve and as such can only be ‘performed’. Going down this route, The Wire’s world of cycles of drug addiction, narcotics dealing, police and political corruption is left untouched by its ironic preface. In other words, we may want to be able to ‘keep the devil down in the hole’, but it ‘ain’t gonna happen’.
But here is the problem. For The Wire seems to strive to find moral and ethical solutions to the problems it describes. Its cynicism has a limit; it still allows the viewer to hope. Indeed its very anger at the world is also a longing for things to be different, to be right. So perhaps could the song’s role be not to shrug off the certainties of faith but rather to kindle a nostalgia for faith?

Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, Marxist and ubiquitous cultural commentator is one of the most prominent intellectuals to articulate this nostalgia for Christianity. Except, for Žižek, it isn’t really nostalgia; on the contrary, the ethical core of Christianity allows this radical Marxist to critique the vapid spirituality of late capitalism, embodied in fads for the New Age and pseudo-buddhism.

Instead, he argues for the radical-revolutionary heart of Christianity to be rediscovered. In contrast to modernity’s insistence on keeping faith as a private ‘obscene secret’, he follows his master G.K. Chesterton in recommending the topsy-turvy public values of Christianity. Here, strong moral boundaries are the way to true pleasure, belief in mystery the only way to really rational thinking.

Following this thread, The Wire’s ‘nostalgia for faith’ becomes more than misty-eyed. It is real; churches (black ones especially) are some of the few places in the series where real good can be accomplished. Individuals are redeemed. The heroin addict Bubbles’ speeches at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Series Five are framed beneath a central crucifix. In the third series the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty is told by his colleague Lester Freamon that ‘the job won’t save you’. But what will?

It is in this space that the radical, redemptive message of Christianity can step in. In breaking the cycles of corruption and violence what may be needed is the kind of regeneration that can’t be dreamt up by property developers and politicians. I mean by this not to urge a bland ‘let’s all understand faith’, à la Tony Blair. The core of Christianity is much more radical and world-changing than that, and the flattening of all religions into one-size-fits-all does none of them any favours.

I acknowledge this reading of The Wire as my own, and partial. But is the space between The Wire’s keeping ‘the devil down in the hole’ and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s ‘beating down Satan under our feet’ so big?