Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Art and Fashion

Of course we all know that the art market is driven by who’s hot and who’s not rather than by any intrinsic merit in the work. And the whole area of intrinsic merit in art is vague and amorphous anyway.Who’s to say? Clement Greenberg? It takes centuries for the dust from the critics’ bullshit to settle and for the fashion bubble to burst. We know the likes of Titian and Goya are beyond reproach. But will history be kind to the flat and affectless work of Warhol? It has been so far. But I’d be uneasy if I’d paid $77 milion for one of his works as a punter did in Sothebys recently.

And what will history make of Damien Hirst? One of his paintings (from the ‘spin’ series) sold at an anonymous auction in Co. Monaghan recently for €380. A dealer later bought it from the lucky punter for €95,000 with a view to extracting even more on the open market. It’s the fashionable name and not the shining merit of the work that matters to the market. The work detached from the name can blush unseen.

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

How lust doth dance attendance on old age. The latest novel in Roth’s late flowering is much concerned with country matters. The itch never goes away – the ability to scratch it sadly does. Becket would be proud of a protagonist who’s not just impotent but also incontinent. And yet the fire burns. This novel is about his unrequited, and unrequitable lust for Jamie – the Texan heiress and writer manque. It’s also of course about the writer’s life and the vexed trade of the biographer.

It’s a riveting read. The critics complained about lacunae, the section on George Plimpton especially. I had no problem with this – and saw it as all of a part with the narrator’s decline. He saw Plimpton as an exemplar of the kind of physical engagement that he was no longer capable of.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Old Men Don't Read Novels (John Banville in UCD 20th Feb. 2008)

Banville modestly intruded himself into the lecture theatre about 10 minutes late. He was introduced by the auditor of the Philosophical Society - a smirking ingratiating creature in a tight suit – he reminded me of the young Alexi Sayle. A very unphilosophical looking figure. Unless of course hedonism is the dominant philosophical movement in UCD these days.

Banville began by making some stock joke about the North Side origin of his journey. “I’m a Northsider” he said – so he’s obviously disowned his Wexford origins.

He read quite rapidly from a prepared speech – occasionally his diction was unclear. He was dressed like a modest academic: sports jacket, light shirt, unassuming tie, all understated and unmemorable.

The first part of the lecture was a quick gallop through Beckett’s biography with several acknowledgements of Knowlson’s contribution. He obviously favours Knowlson’s biography over Tony Cronin’s. Some interesting observations about Beckett the lothario – describing how he had three women on the go at one period, including his future wife. He quoted the old one about Beckett declaring that “sex without love was like coffee without brandy”. He also mentioned that Beckett had an no nonsense utiliterian attitide about sex – he obviously liked coffee on its own as well.

He made much of Beckett’s appreciation and knowledge of art amd maintained that he would have made an excellent art critic. Beckett particularly liked Caspar David Friedrich’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” and cited it as an influence on “Waiting for Godot” – they have a tree in common anyway. He was also a big fan of Cezanne. This is an area well covered (and very interesting) in Knowlson’s biography. He saw in Cezanne’s work the fundemental incommensurability of man and nature – something Beckett’s work constantly asserts.

The main thrust of the lecture was a celebration of his mature masterpiece “Ill Seen Ill Said”. Banville claimed that one of the reasons he agreed to give the lecture was that he wanted us all to go out and read it. He also emphasised the role of Beckett as an exemplar for writers – he described him as a model of probity and tenacity and suggested that the hawk was a good comparison.

An interesting exchange, at least for Beckett geeks: Banville quoted Knowlson’s assertion that Beckett’s famous epiphany took place in his mother’s room rather than on Dun Laoghaire pier (this was the occasion when he realised that he would affirm the negative). He was in turn corrected by an elderly member of the audience who said that Beckett had told him that the epiphany actually took place on the pier in Greystones – within sight of his mother’s room. So now you know.

The whole thing may sound earnest and worthy but in fact it was well leavened with humour throughout (as indeed is Beckett’s work). He told the story of Beckett heading to Lords for a cricket match one gloriously sunny day when a friend turned to him and said “it’s great to be alive”. Becket paused for a second and retorted “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that”.

The session finished with a Q&A. When asked what he read these days, Banville replied that “old men don’t read novels” – a novel answer from our leading novelist. He reads mostly poetry and philosophy he claimed and mentioned Philip Larkin and Wallace Stevens.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Melly's Last Stand

I watched a BBC2 documentary on the last days of George Melly last night. Melly gave an heroic and colourful last performance as he lay dying of an array of fatal diseases (two cancers, heart etc.). His wife Diane was the star of the show however. As he lay in what would shortly become his death bed she escorted an array of former girl friends to say their last goodbyes. Included amongst them (for shame George) was that disgraceful old broiler Molly Parkin – dressed all in purple including an alarming purple cupola of a hat that added about 12 inches to her height. Parkin had tried to steal Melly from Diane many years ago and had suggested in print that Diane should be committed. (A dispassionate observer would put Parkin away these days.) Their doorstep greetings were less than warm but Diane explained that this was for George and her feelings were irrelevant. What a game bird. She also claimed that they hadn’t had sex since 1981. On the one exception to this Melly informed her afterwards that he had the clap so that was the end of it for her. She blithely informed us that he had plenty of girlfriends that looked after him in this regard.

The final scenes were very touching as they carried the old trouper on stage for a farewell gig at the 100 Club off Oxford Street. He gamely croaked a few valedictory blues but really it was a way for his fans to say goodbye – you could see it in the intent eyes of the audience. His spirit remained intact to the bitter kind. When asked how he felt by some well intentioned visitor, he retorted “How do you think I feel, I’m dying for fuck’s sake.”

I saw him at the Cork Jazz Festival about 10 years ago and he was hilariously scabrous. The nations will be less gay with his passing.

What a Gore

Just finished Gore Vidal’s memoirs “Point to Point Navigation:”. It’s disappointing. First things first, if you have already read his excellent “Palimpsest” don’t bother with this. There is a huge amount of repeated material. It has a scraping of the pot quality to it that doesn’t do justice to a writer that I generally admire. The sense of a dearth is reinforced by the large font and lots of white space. There is also a lingering elegiac quality to it that suggests it's his last attempt to set stuff down on paper. There is some alarming evidence of Vidal’s occasional blind spots. One is a fawning homage to Princess Margaret that ignores her well-documented boorishness. The other is where he describes Charles Haughey as the onlie begetter of Ireland’s new-found prosperity. Now if you’re using one sentence to encapsulate Haughey I suspect that your emphasis may be placed elsewhere. “The man who fiddled while Ireland starved” or “The unprincipled leader of an unprincipled party” or some such. The book is also full of Vidal’s shameless name dropping and endless rehashing of his family history and his various interactions with the Kennedys.

But Vidal is better than all this. He has written some very serviceable novels (“Lincoln” especially) and he has been one of the most discerning and acerbic writer on US politics over the past 30 years.

Cathal O Searcaigh

You really have to laugh at Maire Mac an tSaoi and Pauline Bewick coming out to defend the sex tourist aspects of the poet Cathal O Searcaigh’s visits to Nepal. (And doing so on the execrable Joe Duffy Show of all places.) When a fat unprepossessing middle-aged man goes to a third world country and manages to have sex regularly with very young males or females (and 17 is very young) ones suspicions are aroused. What’s in it for them? Well in places like Thailand it’s obvious – it’s money. In Nepal there may have been no direct offers of money but there was certainly dispensing of largesse: books, English lessons, scholarships, bicycles, and in one case it seems a new house. In a deprived country O Searcaigh represented opportunity and escape to the young people he encountered. And he took full advantage of this for his sexual gratification. This is sex tourism.

I’m as liberal as the next man but I find this creepy and exploitive. And isn’t it alarming that the arts establishment (well OK certain prominent figures in the arts establishment) came out to bat for him? And isn’t it also alarming that he seemed not to see anything wrong with exploiting these vulnerable children? And don’t all those who contributed to O Searcaigh’s Nepal fund feel cheated now that they know that they were in fact paying for the improvement of his sex life?

And who cares if he’s gay or not – that’s a red herring. And no he should not be removed from school curricula. If you do that then you would have to make moral judgments about Shakespeare, Byron, Joyce etc. - and God knows what they got up to. Joyce's cloacal obsession, for example, might alarm some folk. Although Philip Larkin is probably a better comparison. All the biographical stuff that came out about his spanking magazines and misogynistic leanings do not render his poetry any less sublime – although some feminist academics and media whores would have us think otherwise. (Isn't that right Bonnie?)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Obama or Clinton

I fear the momentum is with Obama. He's is a better speaker and he's winning the PR battle - the Kennedy support was significant. Also, Obama represents the change from the old order that America seems to want following the depredations of the idiot Bush. But Hillary is a stronger and more intelligent person and would make a more substantial president. Obama is a lightweight - a triumph of marketing. Of course there's the issue of whether Hillary would beat McCain. Obama certainly will.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Road to Oxiana (is paved with Byron's discarded bottles)

Reading Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana" at the moment. Because it's a "classic" there is an onus on one to join in the general approval and wax lyrical about it. I can't quite manage this but still found it a diverting read. He's refreshingly irreverent and misanthropic which I do like and has a lively turn of phrase: "a palsied dotard", "hairy dwarves smelling of garlic" etc. There is plenty of evidence of the the casual racism and anti-semitism that characterises English gentlemen of that era, and also the presumption of service. There are also some very prescient comments on the fledgling state of Israel - and on the differing nature of Arab and Jew - Arabs are lazy, Jews hard-working and acquisitive. And some wonderful descriptive passages, often about the dress of the natives. Check this one out: "Now and then a calico bee-hive with a window at the top flits across the scene. This is a woman."

The descriptions of the logistics of his journeys and the hospitality he enjoys are always interesting in their period detail. And you can't but be impressed by the round the clock drinking he seems to do - on one occasion he becomes agitated by the discovery that there is no alcohol available in the village in which he beds down. On another he rails against the mediocre hock he encounters.

However if you are not interested in tracing the origins of Western architecture and the early influence of Islamic architecture then there are more than occasional lacunae. In fact he does bang on relentlessly and in esoteric detail about all the architectural wonders he encounters. What on earth are squinches? Unless you are an architectural buff you will be skipping over a lot of this book. He's much better on the characters and situations he encounters.

He is also very dogmatic about his architectural tastes and saves a lot of his venom for theatrical swipes at such generally accepted masterpieces as the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra. He also has a go at the giant Buddhas of Bamian destroyed by the Taliban a few years ago: "It is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous, flaccid bulk, that sickens."