One of the saddest recent facts about the world, and especially the twentieth century world is that the Devil has tended to have the best tunes, the best pictures and the best public sculpture.
By the middle of the twentieth century, World War 2 having been at least partly won by some of the Good Guys, many officially encouraged Artists in the rich West had come to associate all tunefulness and all pictorial or sculptural communicativeness with evil, and to shun artistic communicativeness on purpose. Is this picture telling a story? Does that symphony have lots of tunes? Is this sculpture of something or of someone, and does it speak to the best in us? To hell with that, said many of the more serious and educated sorts of Artists, because such glories reminded them that Artistic glory had just been and was typically then still being used, by Hitler and by Stalin and by their numerous imitators around the globe, to glorify wickedness.
Meanwhile, the horribly numerous and influential supporters within the better bits of the world of the still persisting and Communistic sort of evil went out of their way to encourage these mostly dismal and arid Artistic tendencies, in order to make the best bits of the world seem far more uninspiring than they really were, and hence ripe for conquest by the Communistically evil bits. Artistic glory continued, well into the late twentieth century, when the very worst of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors were politically and economically in retreat, to glorify the dreary and still decidedly evil aftermath of the horrors, in the USSR and in all the places it continued to subjugate or influence, such as in China and nearby despotisms. The rule was, still, that the better the mid-to-late twentieth century place was and the more it was contributing, despite all its corruptions and blunders and disappointments, to the ongoing advance of humanity out of mass poverty and into mass comfort and even mass affluence, the duller and more uninspiring its officially sponsored Art was.
Thank heavens for the less official, small-a art, like advertising and the more commercialised parts of cinema and television, and like pop music. Above all, thank heavens for rock and roll. If Official Art refused to celebrate the escape, in the rich countries, of the poor masses from their poverty, then the enriched paupers would buy electric guitars, form ten million pop groups and celebrate their newly emancipated lives for themselves. The rock-and-rollers didn’t “build this city on rock and roll”. The city was already built. But by God they cheered it up. And this despite all the efforts of Official Art people to make rock and roll dismal too.
These thoughts were provoked by me recently having been steered towards pictures of this, I think, rather splendid piece of public sculpture on a hill in Africa, just outside Dakar, Senegal:
This gigantic and inspiring celebration of human progress and traditional family values was erected by the sculptural propaganda arm of the abominable state of North Korea, that classic after-echo-of-horror relic that still now staggers on into the twenty first century.
To the exact degree that Africa is now starting seriously to shun the follies of North Korean style murder-suicide-statist political-economic policies, Africa is indeed now starting to make some serious economic progress, thanks to things like free trade, mass literacy and mobile phones. Well fed African go-getters with adoring wives and happily well fed babies are now multiplying across the continent, busily exploiting the potential of such things as mobile phones to stir up affluence, for others as well as for themselves, perhaps some of them even inspired in their capitalistic endeavours by sculptures like the one above.
I personally believe that the famously colourful and inspiring Chinese posters that were among the very few pleasing things created during the otherwise wholly dreadful and destructive Mao-Tse-Tung era in China may have had a similarly inspiring impact upon China’s subsequent generation of capitalistic go-getters. Communists had a minus quantity of knowledge about how to create the good life, but they at least had a clue about what the good life looked like and felt like, and got other and less crazed persons thinking about how actually to contrive it.
Meanwhile, public sculpture in the old rich parts of the world has, for some time now, been on the up and up, or so I think. It may not be gloriously inspiring, but at least it has started to be – has for some time actually been, I think, some of it – fun, at least quite often. Official Art still can’t quite bring itself to be as brashly optimistic about humanity and its future as those North Koreans, but at least the baleful representation-equals-Hitler-and-Stalin equation is sinking into the cultural history books. Good riddance.
Personally, and in company with many other people who are not usually very attracted by or admiring of contemporary Art, I particularly like the works of Antony Gormley. There was recently a show about Gormley on BBC4 TV, which illustrated only too vividly that Gormley emits the same drone of vacuous and pretentious Art-Speak nonsense that most other Artists seem to. The contrast between the educated verbal gropings that Gormley talked on TV last night with the down-to-earth clarity achieved by the comic book artist Frank Quitely, who starred in an earlier BBC4 show in the same series, was extreme (see my remarks above about the redemptively inspirational contribution of popular art to Art). But ever since Gormley stumbled into popular acclaim with his Angel of the North, which proved a whole lot more inspiring to the wider public than he probably thought it would, he has specialised in doing public sculpture that is of something (typically his own very average naked body but never mind), and which many people, me included, often enjoy looking at. His actual work is, I think, as often as not, brilliantly eloquent, and he is now finding it easier to do it, what with the new technology of 3D computer scanning and visualisation and 3D printing. Gormley’s actual Art makes me want to say, not so much that his spoken words are silly (even his sculpture titles tend to be Art-Speak meaninglessness), but that words are just not Gormley’s thing.
I still remember fondly the time in London, in the summer of 2007, when the dreary concrete of London’s South Bank Arts district and nearby parts was invaded by a small army of naked metallic Gormleys. The many identical Gormleys were not, in themselves, especially inspiring. But look on the bright side. Nor were these Gormleys bent-out-of-shape semi-abstract grotesques, mid-twentieth-century style. And although in themselves ordinary, the Gormleys were often standing in very interesting and inspirational places, high above the streets, up on the roofs of tall buildings:
Stick anyone on a pedestal – in general, look up at them – and they look more impressive. They look like they deserve to be looked up to. This positioning of all those South Bank Gormleys suggested (yes yes, to me – I admit that all this is very personal) ordinary men at least looking, very admirably, towards less ordinary and more inspiring far horizons. Some of the Gormleys were looking downwards, but most were looking out ahead. What all these Gormleys were not doing was just standing in Art galleries, staring miserably at their own feet, with signs next to them full of demoralising Art-Speak drivel. They raised the spirits of almost all of those who gazed up at them. Only those Art People who hated what a popular hit the Gormleys were and who still want Art to just moan about the horrors of capitalist consumerism, instead of actually making a positive contribution to this excellent trend in human affairs, were seriously offended by all these Gormleys, which for me is of course just another reason to love them and to treasure the memory of them. I and most other Londoners and visitors to London who saw them regretted only the moment when they migrated elsewhere.
If and when the ghastly government of North Korea is overtaken by the collapse that in a wholly just world would immediately engulf it, I wonder what will happen to these North Korean sculptors. I now like to conjecture that, despite all the barbarism that they now go through the motions of glorifying, they might yet have some kind of civilised future, glorifying people and things that truly deserve to be glorified.
Well, for all his Marxist ideology, collectivist ruination of Zimbabwe’s once-strong agriculture sector and destruction of its currency, it appears that only the best of capitalist medicine will do for the bastard:
HARARE (Reuters) – President Robert Mugabe is in Singapore for an eye operation ahead of his 90th birthday on Friday, a spokesman said, maintaining a government denial that Zimbabwe’s long-serving ruler is suffering from prostate cancer.
George Charamba said Mugabe, Africa’s oldest president, left Harare on Monday and would be back in the country for birthday celebrations on Saturday.
“This is a routine check-up, a routine cataract operation for his left eye whose date was set down more than a year ago and the president has gone out to fulfil that appointment,” Charamba told Reuters on Tuesday.
“There is nothing more than that, nothing serious” he said, dismissing speculation that Mugabe is struggling with his health. “He had a right eye operation a couple of years ago and he is going to have the other attended to now.”
So if it is a routine matter, why does this man have to fly thousands of miles, churning out all that carbon, which as we know, is causing the planet to get so much warmer (stop the sarcasm, Ed.)?
Or maybe the fellow wants to do a bit of shopping down in Orchard Road?
It is a routine complaint about modern life that “we” now have far too many gadgets for our own good, and maybe some of us do. (I just googled too many gadgets and got “about 150,000,000 results”.)
But then again, have a read of this, by blogger “6000”, who now lives in South Africa, about his last conversation with his beloved uncle Alan, who died yesterday in a hospital in the Isle of Man:
My brother had been over to see him on Saturday and while I wish that I could have been there too, I enjoyed a 20 minute conversation with him over Skype. My last memory of my Uncle Alan will be his disbelief at the technology in front of him as I showed him Cape Agulhas lighthouse and the turquoise Indian Ocean. He always loved anything to do with the sea. We even shared a joke or two. It might not have been the same as actually being there with him, but for me, it was a special moment – even more so now – and I hope that for him, it was a bit of escapism from his hospital bed.
The way to judge the value and impact of a new technology is not to look at the typical or average uses of it, but at its most meaningful and significant uses. Yes, modern toys are routinely used to exchange trivial chit-chat of no great significance. But so what? Where’s the harm in that? Even supposedly insignificant chat often means something very significant to those doing the chatting, even if some nosy eavesdropper with nothing better to do than moan about other people’s conversations might not be so diverted by it. I imagine that if you had been listening in on 6000 and his uncle last Saturday, you might not have been that amused. Like I say: so what?
And nor should “we” be badgered into looking only at the bad things that new technology can do, or help people to do. Yes, some of the newly enabled chit-chat is significant because it is malevolent. Modern toys are indeed used to do bad things, and to conspire to do other bad things. And airplanes incinerated cities. Cars have long been used to make getaways after bank robberies. Trains took innocent people to murder camps and soldiers to be slaughtered in wars. Sailing ships were used by pirates. Money gets stolen, and is then used to finance other crimes.
But are the facts in the above paragraph convincing arguments against the very existence of laptop computers, Skype, smartphones, airplanes, cars, trains, sailing ships or money? No. The good done by new technology when used by good people to do good things is by far its most significant consequence. Long may this continue to be true.
For the last hour as of 13.34 GMT, the Guardian has been running what it calls an ‘eco audit” asking readers to give their views on whether the destruction of ivory stocks helps save elephants as a species.
I was pleased and surprised to see comments running strongly in favour of the answer ‘no’. The first comment is typical:
It’s a stupid move. It just makes the price of contraband ivory go up and kills more elephants.
Equally annoying has been the whitewashing of [Mandela’s] history. He was given a fair trial and a fair sentence, even Amnesty fucking International said so. He WAS a terrorist.
He was also a politician upon release, who had some good ideas and equally, some fucking insane ones. Ironically, he replaced a notionally democratic but really one party state with another notionally democratic but really one party state, although to be fair, this was hardly his fault.
– Obnoxio the Clown
“Mandela was a great man. The obvious reason was his courage and persistence in fighting against Apartheid. The somewhat less-obvious reason was his willingness to forgive. I’m assuming, of course, that the movie Invictus was relatively accurate in that respect. I remember sitting through the movie and being on the edge of tears for almost the whole movie, so moved was I by his willingness to forgive. A little bonus: His favorite poem, “Invictus,” has been my favorite poem since middle school. In some ways just as impressive, if not more so, was his willingness to learn at a relatively old age. He was a long-time socialist but, by the time he got out of prison, much of the world had learned that socialism didn’t work. He became persuaded of that and, although, as president of South Africa, he expanded the welfare state, he did not make a large move in the direction of socialism. His willingness to reject his wife Winnie’s violent ways was also impressive.”
– David Henderson.
I am sure there will be lots of appraisals of his life in the days and years to come; I have seen a few, mostly respectful (and one or two that are less so). As far as I can tell, Henderson’s is about the most accurate I have seen so far, for it focuses on essentials. A great man indeed. May he rest in peace.
I haven’t read anything by the Guardian columnist Sir Simon Jenkins for a while. He’s one of those infuriating grandees of the media who can be relied upon to say a mix of sensible things along with some jaw-dropping pieces of rubbish. Case in point in the rubbish department, regarding the mass murders by Islamists in a Kenya shopping mall (H/T, Douglas Murray in the Spectator) :
The modern urban obsession with celebrity buildings and high-profile events offers too many publicity-rich targets. A World Trade Centre, a Mumbai hotel, a Boston marathon, a Nairobi shopping mall are all enticing to extremists. Defending them is near impossible. Better at least not to create them. A shopping mall not only wipes out shopping streets, it makes a perfect terrorist fortress, near impossible to assault.
“Celebrity building”. Note the sneer. So what is Sir Simon’s suggestion: that Kenyans go back to living in all those cute little mud huts and not frequent markets where more than a handful of folk are in the vicinity, is that it? And that Westerners, or indeed anyone else, should stop going to large buildings, such as theatres, football stadiums, rock concerts, large rail stations, underground stations, skyscrapers….? We stop running marathons, or gathering for other peaceful reasons, lest nutters go on the rampage? Of course, people can choose to avoid such events and places as much as they want, but Sir Simon, a fan of planning legislation, no doubt would not draw the line at just letting people associate where they want.
It is not as if he is even consistent about this issue of density of people in certain places anyway. Jenkins and those of like minds often also decry suburbia, and wish we all went back to living in denser cities and used public transport (which tends to be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks). It is obscene in my view, as people were still dying as a result of the shootings in Kenya, that this fuckwit writes about “the modern obsession with celebrity buildings”, as if there was something almost shameful or foolish about erecting them and enjoying visits to them.
What this man is proposing is, to put it simply, a form of surrender. I remember when George Bush responded initially to 9/11 by urging people to continue shopping and enjoying life as a way to defeat the Islamists. He got criticised for this, but he was right. According to the logic of what Jenkins says, we should stop being Western, stop making big things, or glossy, flash buildings that people enjoy visiting, and revert to a smaller set of gathering places instead, at least for however long it takes before the death-cultists of Islam decide to turn their attentions elsewhere. Great. Let’s hide under our beds. (So long as the beds are not too large or ostentatious, of course.)
Of course, Jenkins is an opponent of large, modern buildings and has been banging the drum in opposition to such things as long as I can remember. But I did not think he would resort to this line of argument. What is this man going to say if a bomb is set off in one of his favourite classical pieces of architecture, I wonder?
(I have updated my item a bit to remove some clunky expressions. Insufficient coffee and anger do not make for great writing.)
I just got an email from the End of the World Club, about their next meeting. This will be at 6.30pm on Monday September 30th, at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London SW1.
Corrie Chipps will talk about “Lessons from Zimbabwe: A Broke Billionaire’s Survival Guide”, discussing her personal experience of watching a prosperous economy spiral into total collapse and how Zimbabweans have adapted.
Email me (click top left here, where it says “Contact”) if you are interested in this, or other EotWC meetings, and I’ll put you in touch.
I have the feeling that there might be rather more than the usual EotWC turnout for this one. Here is a case where the political and the personal overlap, big time. I for one will definitely be attending, barring disaster or memory failure, and I expect to learn a great deal.
This is old news to some but new to me, and to the Huffington Post, judging from their headline. I had thought Clooney to be the standard Hollywood “liberal”, looking down from a lofty height on the barbarians below. Instead he is looking down from a lofty height on one particular barbarian below in order to deter him from atrocities and warn his potential victims. Cool.
Next stop, armaments.
Which might get hairy, given that some private individuals and nearly all states of the satellite-owning classes are prone to think of themselves as gods already, even without the power to strike down malefactors from the heavens.
Yesterday, I encountered this Economist advert (one of this set), in the tube, which included the following argument that booming Chinese investment in Africa is bad for Africans:
Elephant numbers in Africa are falling fast because of the Chinese demand for ivory.
My immediate reaction was that elephants should maybe be farmed. That would soon get the elephant numbers up again, and it would also be good for Africans, because it would provide them with lots of legal jobs. If you google “elephant farming”, you soon learn that an argument along these lines already rages.
People much like Doug Bandow (and like me) say: Why not farm elephants? And people like Azzedine Downes, as and when they encounter this elephant farming idea, are enraged:
These days, it seems like any idea casually dropped in a coffee break conversation can be, if repeated often enough, and forcibly enough, taken seriously by those not really interested in finding solutions. They are looking for sound bites and this one was a doozy! I have seen these arguments take on a life of their own and so struggled to overcome my own vision of elephants in iron pens being kept until they could be killed for their teeth.
“First of all”, I started. “No-one needs ivory.” “Secondly, your proposal raises so many ethical questions that I don’t really know where to start.”
“Don’t get upset”, he said. “I was just wondering. You are right, it is an awful idea.”
I hope I never hear that idea coming up again and, if I do, I hope it will be just as easy to convince the next misguided soul that it is an awful idea.
I’m afraid that Azzedine Downes is going to hear this notion, seriously argued, again and again, unless he covers his ears.
I think I get where he is coming from. Killing elephants, for any reason, is just wrong, like killing people. Downes doesn’t spell it out, because he is not in a spelling things out mood. (“I don’t really know where to start.”) But it seems to me that what we have here is the beginnings of the idea that certain particularly appealing and endangered and human-like animals should have something like a right not to be killed, just as you and I have such a right. If someone kills us, the government will, depending on its mood, go looking for who did it and maybe, if it catches the miscreant in question, punish them in some way or another. Killing elephants, says Downes, is likewise: murder. See also: whales.
Farming a bunch of humans for their bodily organs would also be murder. A kidney farmer pointing out that he was raising his clutch (herd? pack? flock?) of humans not just for the serial killer hell of it, but in order to profit from selling their kidneys, would make things worse for himself, legally speaking, because this would provide the jury with a rational motive. Motive is not justification. Motive gets you punished, not acquitted.
In the matter of elephants, pointing out that farming elephants for their tusks might, given the facts on the ground in Africa, be the difference between African elephants as a species surviving, and African elephants being entirely wiped out by ivory poachers (for as numbers diminish, so prices will rise and rise), or perhaps entirely replaced by a newly evolved species of tuskless elephants, is, for Azzedine Downes, entirely beside the point. Farmers killing the elephants for their tusks doesn’t solve the problem, any more than the slave trade solved the problem of slavery. The problem of slavery was slavery, and the problem here is people killing elephants, which they would do even more of if they farmed them for their tusks. This is absolutely not just about the mere survival of a species. It is about not doing something morally repugnant. The elephants must be saved. They must not be murdered. End of discussion.
Thoughts anyone? How about the Azzedine Downes tendency proving their love of elephants by buying lots of elephants, and large elephant habitats, and then spending more money protecting the elephants from ivory poachers, but without farming them or otherwise exploiting them, other than as objects of photographic devotion by tourists. Presumably this is sort of what they are already doing, even as the idea of people owning elephants sticks in their throats, just as does the idea of people owning people.
Here’s another thought. How would Azzedine Downes feel about elephants having their tusks removed and sold on to Chinese ivory carvers when the elephants die but not before they die? Die of natural causes, I mean. As a matter of fact, are the tusks of elderly elephants, just deceased, still worth enough for that to be any sort of economically viable compromise? And as a matter ethics, would the Downes tendency tolerate even that?
Elephant tusk donor cards? Well, not really, because how would you know, in this new world of elephant rights, how the elephant or elephants actually felt about such a scheme? In this connection, the recent proposal that humans should be presumed willing to part with any or all of their useful-to-others organs when (as above) they die but not before they die, unless they explicitly say otherwise by carrying a non-donor card, is surely relevant.
Another thought: Will it soon be possible to make something a lot like ivory with 3-D printing? Or with some sort of magical bio-engineering process? Perhaps, but if so, that would presumably take much of the fun out of ivory. But then again, so might ivory farming, if it got too efficient.
Perusing the Samizdata postings category list reminds me that maybe similar considerations apply, or soon will apply, to hippos.
Time for me to stop and for any commenters, who want to, to take over.
In April, my friend Elena Procopiu is going on a trek through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to raise money for a charity called the Moroccan Children’s Trust. Elena writes about MCT’s activities,and her fundraising activity for it, here.
There are hundreds of children on the streets of Taroudant suffering daily harassment, humiliation, physical abuse and exploitation as they try to earn a living off the streets. …
… and MCT is trying to do something about that.
Elena’s many friends have started chipping in. I will shortly be doing likewise. I have already learned some geography, by googling Taroudant.
I am looking forward to hearing about this expedition when Elena returns to London. Just as interesting as her report of the trek in the mountains will be what else she will then be able to tell us all about the work of MCT. After the trekking is done, the trekkers will spend a further few days meeting some of the local Moroccans involved, and some of the children and parents they are trying to help. If anyone reading this is inclined to donate also, Elena assures us that this is the sort of thing that all their donations will be spent on. The trekkers are all paying their own travelling expenses.
It makes a difference to me that Elena is personally acquainted with the people who run MCT, which as of now seems to be quite a small operation, with no big London HQ or any such nonsense. The boss of the enterprise is a British doctor. I’m guessing that MCT began when he was doctoring in Morocco, but then realised that many of his patients, or potential patients, had other problems besides medical problems.
I say “or potential patients”, because it is a sad sign of the times we live in that an important part of MCT’s work is helping people fill in forms, so that they can then visit doctors, attend schools, and so on. Sadly, being a bureaucratic un-person can be a slow sentence of death to someone already on the poverty line, in a country like Morocco.
Really helping total strangers can be very difficult. Time and again, people who are trying to help, or who say they are, only end up making matters worse (for coincidental evidence of which you need only note the immediately previous post here this very morning). Which is why, for me, having a personal friend involved in a particular charitable effort makes the difference – all the difference, actually – between me saying no and me saying yes, to a request for a donation. That way I will get the lowdown on how the money is really being spent, and whether it is reasonable to go on hoping that it is doing some actual good. Meanwhile I am genuinely doing a favour for a friend, who I already know I really will be helping.
I hope to be reporting further about this, perhaps with photos that Elena says she will be taking on her travels.