BBC BLOGS - The Reporters: Razia Iqbal

Archives for March 2009

Do we need a Cultural Olympiad?

Razia Iqbal | 12:09 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Does anyone know what a Cultural Olympiad will look like? Does anyone want one? London's winning bid to host the Olympics included a programme for a Cultural Olympiad. So, we will get one. The first of 10 big projects planned for the Cultural Olympiad (it would be helpful if this title was less pompous) has already been announced, with some fanfare, but not much clarity. The project is called Artists Taking the Lead, and essentially offers £500,000 for 12 commissions to artists, who are invited to use the nation as their blank canvas.

There are several issues here: in straitened economic times, when sponsorship deals for major institutions are under threat of drying up, there is an argument that it seems absurd to be investing government money - £5m pounds to be precise - in new work, at the expense of keeping what is truly great about culture in the UK, going. The vagueness of the idea is another problem: the "nation as blank canvas" must have sounded OK in a committee discussion, but that is where it should have stayed. Remember the Dome - creative suicide because there was no single clear idea or vision.

There is something oddly official about this particular idea. If an artist wants to create something really negative about a commercial sponsor of the games, will it pass the committee? It is also quite worrying that after the Artists Taking the Lead was launched, the Culture Minister Barbara Follet pronounced that now people will finally stop asking her what the Cultural Olympiad is. Was she not able to articulate it before the first of the 10 projects was launched? There seems to be a gap in thinking here.

There has undoubtedly been a golden age in the arts in the last 10 years. The diversity and calibre of arts and culture offered in the capital and beyond is second to none. In short, the cultural sector has been thriving. Why isn't more being made of what we already have and attempts to make it available to a larger audience, through television, which is where the games will be showcased for the largest possible audience? Instead, with only three years to go, we have what still feels like woolly, vague ideas, precisely the things which give culture a bad reputation and put people off altogether.

Jade Goody's disarming honesty

Razia Iqbal | 14:46 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

goodyshhh.jpgI'm not at all sure whether the argument that Jade Goody has forced people to think about cancer is anything but a smokescreen.

While it can't be a bad thing that more women will have smear tests, the interest in her untimely death says more about celebrity culture in this country than it does about anything else. The Sun alone has devoted the first nine pages of Monday's paper to her, not to mention a 16-page pull out.

She was of course, the product of a reality television show, but she was an unusual celebrity beyond that too. She had an ability to be utterly open about everything. Once she became a "celebrity", this was even more the case.

Where other celebrities hold a line between that which is public and private, with manufactured answers and a public face, with Jade, her most private thoughts, whether sensible or not, just trotted out of her mouth. For that, the media has loathed her, laughed at her but now, finally, they love her.

The sadness at the heart of her story as a celebrity is that she really wanted to be loved - and that only really came as she lay dying. Her willingness to acknowledge she wasn't clever, in the conventional sense, disarmed people. But what amazed me about her was her willingness to try and redeem herself in others' eyes, while all the time giving an impression of not caring a jot what people thought of her.

Why else would she go to India and take part in their version of Big Brother after being roundly condemned for her racial epithets against fellow contestant Shilpa Shetty? Okay, that was a media opportunity too. But she endeared herself to people. Among the tributes has been one from Ms Shetty.

Through sheer force of personality and chutzpah, she turned out to be a canny businesswoman. And, given the value we place on money in our culture, that too has been applauded.

The bile spewed by her detractors on internet messageboards over the last 24 hours is a reaction to that life lived in public. So soon after her death it seems unedifying, to say the least.

But, perhaps we no longer have any space between that which is public and that which is private. When social networking websites prompt us to live our lives in the open, Jade Goody has been a powerful symbol of our times.

The power of poetry

Razia Iqbal | 14:13 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Poetry is all too often seen as a private pleasure. And the world of poetry is small compared with that of novels.

Of course the world of poetry has its best-selling writers, from Seamus Heaney to Sharon Olds and many more. But I've read two things recently that may put the art form more centre stage, and carve a more public profile for it.

The first is that Mayor of London Boris Johnson is calling for "universal saying lessons" in English poetry. Given the premium he puts on language, that struck me as particularly inelegant.

However, his point, which he presents in the Daily Telegraph today, is made to focus the Conservative Party's minds on education policy. He says the way to create good schools is to insist that the children learn something good.

They should learn two or three poems a term, by heart, and he adds as an aside, that we should put them on television and get them judged by Simon Cowell. His thoughts spring from a visit to a school where he asked sixth formers what poetry they could recite by heart and there was silence.

To get a sense of his passion on the subject, his response was "rage, despair and a desire to do something about it".

The second thing I've seen recently, which will surely gladden Boris Johnson's heart, is the Off by Heart verse reciting competition, the final of which will be hosted by the Oxford Literary Festival in early April.

The idea is Daisy Goodwin's, who has done a great deal already to raise the profile of poetry. 10% cent of the UK's primary schools took part in this competition, and it's hoped that the event will become an annual one, bringing in greater numbers of schools and children every year.

Perhaps Boris Johnson can be tempted to show how much fun learning poetry can be. He describes himself as a slightly wonky poetry jukebox, and professes to know thousands of fragments of poems and rather impressively, a dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets, the whole of Lycidas and the first 100 lines of Homer's the Illiad in Greek. He is surely not typical, but I am happy to be proven wrong.

So what can you recite off by heart and does it matter? Poetry is the one art in which this island excels above others, and yet it has such a minor profile. Will learning it by heart at school change its status?

Does the north need the Royal Opera House?

Razia Iqbal | 17:08 UK time, Thursday, 12 March 2009


The Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, says it could be the most significant development in British arts for a generation. The idea of establishing a Royal Opera House in Manchester, a joint project from Covent Garden and Manchester City Council, has been talked about for some time.

A report into the scheme was commissioned from the leading arts consultant Graham Marchant by Arts Council England, and is published today on their website. Marchant says the idea is a genuinely altruistic attempt to make the benefits of the ROH's artistic work (opera and ballet) available to a wider geographical constituency. The base for this would be the Palace Theatre; the capital costs of refurbishing it and making it a producing house for the ROH and others will be in the region of £100m. And that is just for starters.

The report now provides a basis for debate about access to the arts, and also how to make our national cultural institutions, many based in London, truly national. It won't be a reality for sometime to come but this is a start. What do you think? Does Manchester need an opera house? Will it, as the Culture Secretary says, have a transformative effect on the cultural life of the north of England, be a driver of economic growth, and cement Manchester's status as a world city?

The moral maze of writing

Razia Iqbal | 12:34 UK time, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Writing is hard, so you look for anything that will give you an edge. Julie Myerson has found the edge that works for her - and that is writing about her family. Her new book, The Lost Child is out today, the publication date brought forward a couple of months to reap the publicity rewards of the controversy surrounding it.

And the controversy continues, with tabloids and broadsheets and broadcasters, weighing in daily about her decision to write about her son's drug addiction, which led to him being cast out of the family home when he was 17. Should the Myersons have thrown their child out of the house? Is their justification of highlighting the drugs problem posed by skunk, plausible? Hasn't writing the book had the opposite effect of helping the boy? What would you or I have done in their shoes? All these issues have been aired thoroughly and with considerable invective and judgement in the media.

The Myerson family has clearly suffered a terrible private trauma, but because the mother, Julie, is a writer, that trauma has been mined for her professional writing life. That is what many writers do, they ransack and delve into their lives, and the lives of others, sometimes dead or alive, sometimes close to them, sometimes not, and they work with that material to create new stories. In that context, the very act of writing a book, fiction or non-fiction, can feel like an act of betrayal - a betrayal of confidences, a betrayal of family secrets; an exposure of truths.

Writers are observers and they give themselves permission to write what they see. I understand when Julie Myerson says that you have to write the book you have to write, referring to how her research into a young Victorian painter, Mary Yelloly, who died an early death from TB, continually drew her back to her family's experience with her drug taking son. So she has interwoven the two stories in the book.

What's the betting that the majority of readers will just skip the Mary Yelloly bits to the parts about her son? The misery memoir makes it to the best seller lists routinely and while that genre is much mocked and maligned, this is in that mould. It's better written, and without the media storm would probably done as well as Julie Myerson's other books, but now it will exceed her and her publisher's expectations; a second print run has already been issued.

In all of this, I am reminded of something that that writer's writer Philip Roth wrote in his book, American Pastroral: "Writing turns you into somebody who's always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn't completely wreck your life".

Can Michael Jackson regain his crown?

Razia Iqbal | 17:09 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009

jackson_razia.jpgLong after his musical star began to wane, the prurient interest in Michael Jackson has remained strong. His strange looks and behaviour cast him in the role of circus act, leaving fans to dwell on the days when he really was the King of Pop. It's harder still to hold onto the picture of the 14-year-old boy who had an extraordinary voice and a command of gesture and movement, and who looked like a black kid on the path to success.

Jackson's appearance alone makes those who don't care for his music wade in and comment on his weirdness. For those reasons, there is huge interest today in Jackson announcing a series of dates at the O2 Arena in London. He is of course in financial difficulty. The estimated £50m he stands to earn will help, but what of his musical reputation and the shows themselves?

At the height of his career, Jackson was a thrilling live performer, and there have been tabloid rumours that insurers have made him take heath tests to prove he is fit enough to endure 10 concerts. Will he sell his fans short?

The last time he performed in London, he couldn't finish the song. That was in 2006 at the World Music Awards; I was in the amassed media scrum outside and remember watching with alarm how fragile he looked, and frightened, I thought, as he waved to crowds and tentatively answered questions from the world's press. Three years on, he seems in desperate need of money and a way to recoup what was once a towering reputation. I wonder at his chances of fulfilling either.

Russia leads contemporary art charge

Razia Iqbal | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

shezardawoodhetna.jpgThere's quite a lot kicking around the blogosphere at the moment about it all being over for contemporary British art, and that the artists who will forever be associated with bling and excess are facing their very own downturn.

However, over in Moscow, it seems money is still swilling around and there is an appetite for contemporary art which is alive and vibrant. We all know a little about the glamorous Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova, girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, art collector and most recently, appointed editor of the fashion magazine, Pop, which incidentally she aims to move into a more artistic and cultural direction. I'll be keeping an eye on this, so watch this space.

Maria Baibakova is even younger than her good friend Dasha. At 23, she has a rouble or two of her father's money, (Oleg Baibakov is a hugely wealthy former executive of the giant mining company, Norilsk Nickel) which she is using to establish BAIBAKOV art projects in Moscow, at the Red October Chocolate Factory, and a show featuring 20 London-based artists has just opened there.

It's the first time since 1995, that a collection of up and coming artists has been exhibited abroad on this scale. Then it was Charles Saatchi who took Brilliant! to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis. Among the artists in that show were Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers. Could Maria Baibakova be the next Charles Saatchi? Her credentials are impressive: art history at Barnard College, Columbia University, followed by the Courtauld Institute in London.

When we spoke on the phone, she told me that it is difficult to define what makes a British artist, but that it hardly mattered, because London speaks a global language when it comes to artists and what she wants to do is create an appetite for contemporary art in Russia. Her confidence is startling. The space she is showing in was used by the dealer Larry Gagosian last year for a sale of work by of 70 artists. Maria Baibokova is less interested in the commercial aspect, and more in educating the audience. She says she wants to show Russians, who are still uncomfortable with non-realistic work, what contemporary art can be. The work, Carrion, by Eloise Fornieles will certainly challenge: the artist walks naked through piles of second hand clothes; in the midst of the clothes hangs the carcass of a cow. People are encouraged to write letters of apology for consuming, which are then inserted into the cow by the artist.

Among the artists she is showing are Shezar Dawood, Idris Khan, Conrad Shawcross and Ryan Gander. Later this week, the Francois Pinault Foundation collection will stage an ambitious show at the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, (which was opened by Dasha Zhukova last year) filling 8,500 square metres of the Garage building with artists such as Shirin Neshat and Maurizio Cattelan and many others. Artistic activity in Moscow suggests that the flow of money there is fast establishing it as a credible and exciting centre for contemporary art and it is thrilling that at its heart are two very young women who appear to be passionate about art.

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