BBC BLOGS - Gomp/arts

Archives for April 2011

The art of a successful marriage

Will Gompertz | 11:09 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

I understand William and Kate - aka Catherine - are getting married. Why? I mean why is such a beautiful girl marrying a balding bloke with a plummy accent and a dodgy educational record. To be honest - and I don't want to be disrespectful - I suspect it's for the money.

This photograph was taken by Mario Testino as one of the official portrait photographs for the engagement of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton

Photo by Mario Testino, one of the official portraits for the engagement of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton

That's an example of the sort of speculation and tittle-tattle I had to put up with from observers when I got married nearly 18 years ago to Kate (Catherine) Anderson. Well, I lost the money but not the missus, so her motives must have lain elsewhere, although, to be frank, I too have never been able to fathom what they were.

But it's worked out (I'm away a lot); we have an understanding: I choose the music in the car; she chooses the destination. I say the house looks a bit tired; she redecorates it. She has style; I don't. There are a billion similar marriages (aren't there?).

Just imagine though, if you were called William and Kate, and were marrying at the end of this month in front of billions of people. And that every single comment, choice, idiosyncrasy and opinion you proffered was publicly scrutinised. It would be a strain, wouldn't it? But what might make the pressure almost unbearable for Prince William and Catherine Middleton, his bride-to-be, is the knowledge that many of those choices and opinions have global ramifications.

Kate's wedding dress will make its designer's career, regardless of what he/she conjures up. Even a take on Gaga's meat dress would work (caveat: key elements would have to be organic to placate Charles). Already Kate is proving to be just as potent a clotheshorse as Michelle Obama - whose sartorial selections have provided a big boast for her chosen brands.

The Issa dress Kate wore for her engagement announcement sold out, as did Primark's cheaper version. The white Reiss dress she wore for the Mario Testino's official engagement photograph was, for a while, selling at one-per-minute. Commentators say that she has yet to find her fashion mojo, but once she moves from off-the-peg (she'll have to apparently) to bespoke, her true colours will be revealed.

And the British fashion industry - currently worth nearly £21bn according to the British Fashion Council (BFC) - will be keeping an eye on her choices. According to Harold Tillman, Chair of the BFC, her commercial impact on the sector will be huge - as long as she buys British...

She will set trends, the royals always have. Was it irony or ignorance that led to Malcolm McLaren dressing the Sex Pistols up in tartan, a fabric made famous by the Royal Family? Even Prince Charles's dogged commitment to double-breasted suits appears to be catching on, a bit.

But the influence of the newly-weds will go beyond fashion. Their voices and choices across the arts will be heard and felt. Kate for example is keen on photography. What I wonder would she have made of this week's shortlist for the BP Portrait Award? Perhaps she'll commission the £25K prize-winner to produce the first portrait of the happy couple?

I'm fairly certain the creators of the TV film William and Kate: The Movie; won't win the contract to make their wedding video. The film depicts their St Andrews dating days, and has been described as "the naffest royal film ever made". Channel 5 will be screening it in the run-up to the wedding.

And what would their view be on the new David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary in Margate: a modern masterpiece or colossal carbuncle? We know where his dad stood on modern architecture, but what about William?

Actually, what about William? If you look at his list of interests on the Prince of Wales's official website you'll discover he only has one: sport. Isn't that a bit narrow for a future King and current President of Bafta?

But right now, their thoughts will be turning to their honeymoon and what to read on holiday. Perhaps they can take their pick from the shortlists of two literary prizes announced this week. Maybe Kate could sample the Orange Prize's shortlist and William could go for the one provided by the Wodehouse Prize.

I'm off on holiday, and by the time I return William and Kate will be married. Their life will be exciting, weird, frustrating and challenging, as I hope, will their impact on the arts. Bonne chance.

Celebrating John Cage

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Will Gompertz | 08:54 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Have you noticed how everybody wants to be different but nobody wants be odd? Call a friend unique and they'll like you all the more, tell them that they're odd and you'll be deleted from their life. The truth is most people don't want to be different - they want to be the same, but better.

John Cage

I like odd people. Quirky types, eccentrics, twitching academics, people who are not in sync with the rest of the world but not against it either, people who are just doing their thing. People like the late musician John Cage (1912-1992).

Cage was a Category A odd-ball. When everybody turned left, his instinct was to veer right, not for effect or attention or to elevate himself, just because turning right would have felt like the thing to do. He was a great and influential musician who made music from life, not to accompany it. He was the man behind 4'33'' - a timeframe in which to listen, a piece of infinitely varying incidental music that the anit-X Factorers tried to manipulate to number one spot in the UK charts last Christmas under the banner of Cage Against the Machine.

I don't think John Cage would have approved. The implicit point being made by the Cowell-knocking PR campaign was anything is better than a Simon Cowell promoted number one: even silence. But 4'33'' is not a piece of post-modernist irony, it is not about silence, it's about the music of real life. Cage once said that, "the sound experience I prefer to all others is the experience of silence". It is only when all is quiet that your aural senses can at last have a bit of "me time".

When Cage was taken away with that exhilarating feeling of freedom we all get on high days and holidays, when the iPod gets cranked up a notch or two, and a favourite piece of music transports us to somewhere sublime, he would not bother with manufactured music, but simply turn up his ears and listen harder to the noises around him.

He was less interested in formal music, which he likened to talking, "I don't need sound to talk to me", but liked the "activity of sound". Sound that doesn't mean anything other than it is proof of a life-force. So, someone dropping a pan, or a busy motorway or a random act of noisemaking by a horse bolting though a city was music to Cage's ears.

On Saturday a new exhibition opens at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, called, John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day. It will be the first of many such exhibitions over the next 12 months, marking the centenary of the modernist master's birth. The show will include a reprisal of his whimsical 1948 piece, Suite for Toy Piano by Margaret Leng Tan who you can see on YouTube playing Eleanor Rigby on the instrument. She knew Cage and worked with him before he died. Her point - and his point - is that the toy piano has the potential to be a real instrument, that anything has the potential to be musical, especially silence.

John Cage was odd. Fabulously so.

Tasting notes

Will Gompertz | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Last week the shoe designer Christian Louboutin filed a lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent for putting red soles on its shoes. He claims that to do so infringes his copyright. As you might know, Louboutin's shoes have noticeably red soles.

A shoe by Christian Louboutain with distinctive red sole

Such style nuances are a designer's holy grail. A subtle bit of branding that lets those in the know, know, and leaves those who don't know none-the-wiser and satisfyingly excluded. It is about visual language. It is about style and wealth. It is about tribe and commerce. But above all it's about taste: the ugly side of aesthetics.

All of which has been on my mind since Friday when I filed a short round-up of the week's arts news for BBC2's Review Show. I had themed the piece around the idea of taste. I know that's a bit lame as taste is a default theme in the arts, but I excused myself on the grounds that a week in which Mohamed Al Fayed placed his statue of Michael Jackson at Fulham Football Club and Frankie Boyle got a slap on the wrist for his "joke" about Katie Price and her disabled son, was as good a time as any to peg a piece against the subject.

And since then it's been on my mind like an annoying tune, insomuch as I would rather have been thinking about lots of other things but kept finding myself relating every thought to matters of taste. And that's the problem with taste; it's as pervasive and determined as a Russian vine (yes, and with the scars to prove it).

Is Gavin Turk's idea of sticking a giant rusty nail into a spot of land by St Paul's Cathedral in good or bad taste? And did the man and his accomplices who stole the £1.2 million Stradivarius (and £62k bow) from a musician having lunch in a sandwich shop demonstrate some sort of atavistic good taste gene, or were they just ignorant chancers?

And who decides what is good taste and what is bad? Is it the opinion of several million people, or that of people with several million? And at which point does something become good taste in-perpetuity (Georgian architecture) or become supposedly gauche without warning (Ugg boots)?

When is taste allowed to be fickle and when must it be faithful? And while everybody is allowed to have their own taste, they're not really are they?

Take beards for example. Ten years ago if you had a beard your chances of working in the "creative industries" as a rookie were close to zero; today the reverse is probably true. Now, beards haven't changed or young men's ability to grow them, but taste has. So now there are a lot more twenty-somethings with beards than there were a decade or two ago, most of whom would like, or have, a job in the creative industries or be associated with those that do.

Association is a major factor in defining what is and what is not good taste. If we associate a style/brand with a certain way of life to which we aspire, we are likely to consider it good taste. And if that style/brand has a visual shorthand like a recognisable logo; then they are in good shape. But if the associations become negative, that brand is no longer good shape, it is in bad shape.

Which all goes to show the power of design and the associations we prescribe to individual objects and phrases in order to arrive at a point of view we call: "taste".

Bob Dylan and Ai Weiwei

Will Gompertz | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Awkward. That's how I imagine Bob Dylan is feeling. His jaunt to China raised the odd eyebrow when it was first made public. Now, with the arrest of Ai Weiwei, those eyebrows have been lowered into scowls and quizzical looks.

Venue for Bob Dylan's first concert in China

"What's the world's most famous protest singer going to do about Ai's detention?" people are asking. "Will he quit the tour? Or at least say something? Surely he will say something? I'm sure he'll say something." And so on.

I'm thinking he'd probably never heard of Ai Weiwei before going to China. Well, he has now. And after a modicum of research he will have found out that the conceptual artist has - as he himself did in the 60s and 70s - made politics a central component of his artistic output.

But there is a difference. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan - the great American post-war academic - Dylan's message was in the medium, whereas Ai Weiwei is the message. When I interviewed him for Newsnight last year, he said he most admired Marcel Duchamp, not for his art, but for his attitude to life.

A pro-democracy protester holding a pen to urge residents to sign their names to support the release  of Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong

And this is what he has attempted to emulate. His art is a secondary by-product of his view of the world and his place within it - his attitude to life is the real artwork. So for Ai Weiwei the installation at Tate Modern of his porcelain sunflower seeds is an example of one of his works of art, and his arrest and detention, another.

That is not to say he is pleased to be banged up, or that it is part of some grand artistic plan, but that the man, his politics and his art are one inseparable thing. Which I suspect means that if the roles were reversed, and Bob Dylan was under arrest in China, that Ai Weiwei would probably have had something to say by now.

Daniel Barenboim: Classical music for all

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Will Gompertz | 12:41 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

Daniel Barenboim started our phone interview by taking the mickey. It was my accent that caught his ear; a tad plummy I suspect: "Hello my dear fellow" said the great maestro in response to my BBC welcome. Which was quickly followed by "I'm ready old fellow". Then something along the lines of "do ask a question, be a good chap".

Daniel Barenboim

I was relieved. I'm the youngest child of four, I can handle teasing, what I don't like are telephone interviews. Unaided by physical cues, they can go terribly wrong, extremely quickly. The last person I interviewed over the phone was Steve Martin and that went slightly worse than very badly.

Arts reporting is the decathlon of journalism; there is a lot of disciplines to cover and you're going to be weaker in some more than others: Daley Thompson wasn't strongest at the 1,500m; my 1,500m is cantatas and capriccios. So when the man thought by some to be the greatest pianist and conductor of his generation chooses to play the (interviewing) game in good humour, I'm delighted.

Admittedly he had something to plug - a one-off free concert on Friday night to launch three CDs - so it was in his interest to keep things friendly. But as it turned out, his warmth was genuine as was his evident frustration with classical music. Not the art form, but the narrowness of its fan-base.

He thinks classical music is intimidating, too aloof and disconnected from the masses; existing in not so splendid intellectual isolation enjoyed mainly by the aficionados who attend the world's great concert halls. "Music today has been put more and more into an ivory tower," he said. Those responsible for it had failed to keep up with technological developments - records, CDs, iTunes - which had "democratized" the western classics; while Schoenberg and Stravinsky became widely and cheaply available, "there was not the necessary accompanying actions taken in efforts of education for all these [new listeners]".

Daniel Barenboim

He says there should be a "radical change of the education system", so that "children don't just learn literature, biology, geography and history at school, but you also learn music". Because, he thinks, "through music you get over many obstacles you have in daily, normal daily life outside music".

And, he added, if people are to get something out of classical music they need to put something in:

"There's no point in telling people just go there it's so simple it will happen. That's also not true, it's not a good way. I think that people need to know that to get something out of classical music they have to really want to go there and open their ears. And really concentrate and listen and then they will really get a lot out of it."

But he's going to do his bit too: starting with the gig, in the cavernous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which will be filled with Chopin. Barenboim on piano and five other players. He says his doing it to:

"[F]ind a new public and wanted to find the people that are curious. The people that maybe feel they don't know enough about music and don't dare to come into contact with it. And maybe through this kind of actions they will. Maybe they will come. In the end curiosity is the most important because if you are curious you will acquire the knowledge that you might not have presently."

The choice of location is deliberate. Modern art was once unpopular, looked upon with suspicion by the general public. Now they come in their millions, with open, enquiring minds: just the sort of punters Barenboim is after. It's a tactic that might work. In fact if he looks to the rise in popularity of modern art as an exemplar, it might prove more effective than formal education.

The public's change in attitude to modern art (not all of course) has not come about because of education, but because of fashion: it became hip. A mixture of some charismatic artists (from Warhol to Hirst), beguiling new spaces (Pompidou Centre, Guggenheim Bilbao, Tate Modern) and media-savvy dealers (Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch, Jay Jopling) has led to modern art forcing its way into the public consciousness. And once there, the public decided they wanted to know more.

Which led to more people visiting galleries, which led to more media coverage, which led more new buildings, which led to more public interest and so on. The success of a gallery such as Nottingham Contemporary is remarkable; in their inaugural year of 2010, they welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to take a look at the most avant of the avant-garde.

Once at a gallery visitors can teach themselves (and in some cases their children). The knock-on effect has been more interest in all genres of art, from the Renaissance masters to the cave paintings of France. There's no reason why classical music shouldn't enjoy similar success. It's not as if there is a shortage of young talent with something interesting to say - the British composers Thomas Ades and Mark Anthony Turnage being just two examples of interesting and adventurous exponents of the art form.

Daniel Barenboim will not give up the fight on the education front, but I suspect he will have more success in achieving his aims of making his music more widely heard and understood by taking a more innovative approach. As he says:

"I'm sure that 100 years ago people who knew their Schoenberg knew their Kandinsky and the people who knew their Picasso knew their Stravinsky and that's not the case any more now. There are many people who are interested in painting who don't know and don't care anything about music and vice versa. And it's time really that we make that connection again."

I'll be there; listening and learning.

3D cinema

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Will Gompertz | 08:48 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

3D is a naff cinematic gimmick right? The toy du jour for dollar-eyed film execs and publicity hungry arts companies: "the first ever 3D sculpture show" and so on. It's been used, abused and discredited, a flash-in-the-pan fad like Cuban heels: enough already.

Audience watch through 3D glasses

Or, maybe, it's the most artistically important development in film since Technicolor? Could it be that 3D technology will be for filmmakers, what the discovery of perspective was for the great artists of the renaissance? That is, understanding that depth of depiction opens up new possibilities for depth of expression.

Two new films, by two great German auteurs show what can be achieved with this much-maligned technology. Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave paintings in the South of France and Wim Wenders's Pina, his tribute to the choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, has changed the view of many 3D sceptics who can now see the point.

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