With galleries, cinemas and theatres closed for months during Lockdown throughout COVID19 this year, the future of the visual arts has been looking pretty bleak. With life now taking place in a new virtual sphere, we may be questioning if the timeless experience of seeing the arts live or in the flesh will ever be the same again. The more optimistic among us, however, will hopefully agree that this sort of spectatorship could never be digitally replaced with enough success and these establishments will live on despite some considerable projected losses.
However, on a scaled down level, we do not need to look too far for a positive to come out of this momentary pause on life. The curious trends that swept across the nation, from making banana bread to tie-dying clothes and revamping the garden seemed to entice even the self-proclaimed ‘non-creatives’. For me this begged reflection on the nature of creativity. In the hectic everyday life of work, downtime is fleeting and to be cherished and the easy Sunday morning is followed all too quickly by the Sunday blues before Monday morning. In other words, time, and being bored, is a luxury – one that most of us were overindulged with this year. The feeling that we had completed Netflix and there was no more feed left to scroll is what pushed us all to try new things that we would not have in any other circumstance. What would happen, then, if we had more time on our hands? And what has it meant? This shift has moved a lot of us from being consumers to creators – making bread when we couldn’t buy any, making clothes when the shops were closed, and for some who were desperately bored, making TikToks instead of watching them.
Will we see a sort of Renaissance then, after the effects of this pandemic? With the rise of technology more is definitely possible, and who knows, maybe some of these hobbies have given some people a taste of the creative lifestyle and sparked enough interest to continue. One thing this time at home has made us all realise is the importance of winding down time and de-stressing and hopefully people will continue to make time in their busy schedule for these liberating activities. Let’s watch this space then to see some of the results of the big contenders.
Classic but Contemporary: What would Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus look like with today’s standards of beauty?
One of the most recognisable paintings of the Renaissance, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus depicts the arrival of the classical Goddess of love and sex, and with it the entrance of divine beauty into the world. The face of Venus in this painting has been considered one of the most beautiful throughout the history of art, but how do the Renaissance ideals of long flowing blonde hair, voluptuous curves and a large forehead translate to what the notion of female beauty means today? The possession of a large forehead today has its place in old tales of big brains and intelligence, but correct me if I’m wrong in saying that it isn’t a particular foothold on the scale of attractiveness nowadays.
Held up as a deity in this painting Venus herself is considered to be the idealised version of a woman, and Botticelli was known for his appreciation and expression of the perfect woman. Pair them together and we are presented with the ‘original blonde bombshell,’ but what later becomes strikingly obvious is the impossibility of it all (aside from the birth of a full grown woman in a shell and the Wind God Zephyr who blows her to shore, that is). Her typical contrapposto pose does not have the correct centre of weight for it to be possible for her to stand this way, there are no shadows underneath the figure, and her beauty distracts from her unnaturally long neck and the steep fall of her shoulders. In sacrificing realism for a graceful outline of harmony, the pedestal upon which Botticelli places Venus with this depiction of perfection immediately enters the realm of the imaginary and pertains even in 1485, to the unrealistic expectations that still haunt the idea of feminine beauty today.
Some of the more learned among us may cast aside the novels of Ian Fleming overlooking their academic capability, however in his novel Dr. No., Fleming alludes to Botticelli’s painting when the figure of Honey Ryder emerges from the sea. Realised in the film by Ursula Andress, we are presented with a more contemporary embodiment of this idealised perfection. Although still blonde, the actress’ tanned skin and more slender figure redefine the upheld object of the male gaze (we won’t try to tackle in this short article the shift from Botticelli’s melancholic modesty to Honey’s dagger at the hip in this series of films where women are highly sexualised). It seems then that what we describe as a ‘Botticelli figure’ today was not part of the perfect woman in the 60s, the decade of Twiggy and a Vogue diet that consisted of hard-boiled eggs, black coffee and white wine (preferably chablis). If painted in these years, Venus would have most likely been an unrecognisable version of herself, but with the recent body positivity movement (woo girl power) perhaps these ideals will begin to shift back to how they were in the 1400s? Despite hard work it is taking time to debunk the wide circulated rumour that gingers have no souls, but with the recent anti-racist movement and embracing of all colours of skin, the ideal of blonde hair has rather been lost in translation. As for the length of her hair, quite frankly I commend anyone who has the patience to maintain this Rapunzel level mane in this day and age and I think we will put the appeal of a large forehead down to personal preference.
 Sotheby’s Most Famous Artworks in the World series, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dYAa5hjEZg
A wave of financial crises is looming, and according to predictions, the arts sector will be among the most adversely affected. Museums and galleries worldwide have lain shuttered for almost three months, and while digitization projects have allowed for their collections to be viewed online, such initiatives do not bring in nearly as much money as ticket sales.
Yet despite the distress unleashed by the pandemic, some people believe it could have a positive impact on the arts in the long term.
Museums and galleries were reopened in Asia some time ago, with many in Europe recently following suit. As a new age dawns upon the world of the arts, it seems an auspicious time to explore how it will be affected by the pandemic.
There is no doubt that the sector has taken a hard hit financially. Research conducted by the Network of European Museum Organisations indicates that, during the pandemic, 13% of the 650 museums surveyed lost up to €30,000 per week, and a further 5% lost almost €50,000 per week. Amsterdam’s world-famous Rijksmuseum, which would normally receive up to 12,000 visitors daily, recorded losses of between €100,000 and €600,000 per week. Though some museums have yet to disclose the magnitude of their losses, the slew of redundancies they have been issuing indicates the extent of their financial struggles. In late March, the UCLA Hammer Museum laid off 150 part-time employees, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art announced plans to dismiss 72% of its workforce.
It is unlikely that museums’ ticket sales will bounce back to normality when they reopen. Both Philip Tinari and Eike Schmidt, directors of Bejing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and Florence’s Uffizi Gallery respectively, recently announced plans to admit half as many visitors as usual owing to social distancing regulations. The decision is a costly one for Schmidt; the Uffizi, Italy’s most visited gallery in 2016, already lost over €10 million in revenue during lockdown. Moreover, people might be deterred from visiting art institutions for fear of putting their health at risk. Others might be put off by the lengthy entry procedures; before entering the UCCA, visitors are required to get their temperature taken, scan a QR code twice and show staff their green code.
If the pandemic will cost institutions as prestigious as New York’s Metropolitan Museum $100 million, as its executives recently projected, it is likely to threaten the very existence of smaller artistic institutions. The Comitié professionnel des galeries announced at the start of April that a third of French art galleries could be forced to shut by the end of 2020. The Indianapolis Contemporary, which first opened in 2001 and appointed a new director in January of this year, has already fallen victim to the pandemic. Announcing plans to close the museum permanently, board president Casey Cronin said “the impact of the coronavirus is certain to exacerbate economic hardships” and pointed out that “we are not alone as other arts institutions struggle in this crisis.”
Smaller artistic institutions could also struggle to attract visitors because people might assume their health and safety measures are inadequate. Some people believe that institutions must use expensive equipment to ensure visitors abide by hygiene and distancing regulations, such as gadgets which emit an alarm when visitors aren’t social distancing. The Duomo in Florence, an institution which is unlikely to suffer from great financial difficulty, distributes such devices free of charge to its visitors.
Amid the financial uncertainty posed by the pandemic, artists might also abandon smaller galleries in favour of larger, more established institutions. According to Vulture, even before the pandemic “artists were leaving smaller galleries in droves for megagalleries.”
The pandemic will no doubt deliver a serious financial blow to artists. Art fairs, which Alessandro Lupi, the owner of Bologna’s Labs Gallery recently described as “extremely important events where collectors discover artists’ projects and buy their work”, have been postponed or cancelled across the world. Jerry Saltz points out in Vulture that Covid-induced restrictions on mobility might even spell the end for such events.
Governments across the world have responded differently to artists’ financial struggles. While President Emmanuel Macron has promised to provide intermittent support for French artists, Togo’s Minister of Culture, Kossivi Egbetonyo, recently released a statement encouraging artists who have been hard-hit by the pandemic to temporarily change occupation. Many Togolese citizens were offended by his comments, and felt they were symptomatic of the government’s lack of respect for the arts.
However governments choose to treat artists, one thing is for certain: their work is the fuel that keeps the arts industry moving. Without them, the arts world would not be nearly as rich and diverse as it is today.
It is from this cornerstone that one positive impact of lockdown emerges. Many of the world’s most famous artworks were produced in isolation. As Waldemar Januszczak writes in The Sunday Times, the 12 months Vincent van Gogh spent in an asylum in Provence proved to be the “single most productive year of his career.” Other masters such as Pablo Picasso and Richard Dadd have shown us that isolation stimulates rather than stifles creativity.
What’s more, many great artworks have been born out of crises. As Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, recently put it, “if you look at the great traumatising events of the past – world wars, global emergencies of different kinds – artists have always responded.” We might in fact be on the cusp of a new artistic movement, driven by artists committed to helping us navigate our way out of isolation and make sense of what we have just lived through.
There is another reason, however, why many people believe the pandemic might have a positive impact on the arts world. The amount of money swilling about in the sector has long been a subject of contention among artists and curators. Works by industry heavyweights including Banksy and Maurizio Cattelan reflect their frustration with the obscene circus that the arts world now represents. Stuart Shave, owner of London’s Modern Art, recently admitted that, prior to the pandemic, his schedule was filled with days when he would make a 6,000-mile round trip for an opening and a dinner.
Yet the social and financial implications of the pandemic could very possibly put an end to the industry’s large-scale operations, since they will make it harder for gallerists, art works and devotees to travel around the world. The pace of exhibitions will no doubt be slower, as will the rate at which blockbuster shows are churned out. According to Rebecca Salter, President of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the appetite for blockbuster shows might even find itself sated by “smaller, more intimate encounters with artists we might not know.” Many people are hopeful that the pandemic will also open the floodgates to more serious discussion about crowd control. Jan Dalley writes in the Financial Times: “perhaps in future a visit to the Louvre or the British Museum or the Uffizi won’t be a touristic given but more like going to the theatre — seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’ could be like getting a ticket for Hamilton.”
While so much about the post-corona arts world remains a mystery, one thing is for certain: art galleries and museums will be far emptier upon opening. Visitors will have more space, more time and, perhaps, a more rewarding experience. And who knows, perhaps this rewarding experience will remind industry leaders why they were drawn to work in the sector in the first place, and prompt them to precipitate changes that artists and curators have been seeking for so long.
Although the impact of the current pandemic is severe in many areas of society, the arts are certainly among the worst affected. It is unfortunately in the nature of this sector that it involves crowds – and now, concerts, theatre and opera performances, dance festivals, exhibitions, and even book fairs have been cancelled and postponed indefinitely. Millions of artists, dancers, singers, producers and musicians are left in limbo, without an income and without a set date for the return of normality to comfort them.
Nevertheless, as everyone else, those working and creating in the arts are counting on a swift conclusion of the current situation, and for the meantime, they´re continuing to do what they do best – being creative. Yes, art requires to be seen, yet for a temporary timespan a surprising quantity of it can be experienced online or in more intimate formats than big concert halls or theatres. Musicians are livestreaming themselves performing – at home, of course – on Instagram or Facebook, sometimes even collaborating. Art galleries and museums are making their collections available online to take virtual tours. Opera singers are delighting their neighbourhoods with free concerts from their balconies, or, like Andrea Bocelli, from an eerily empty Duomo in Milan. Ballet companies around the world offer online streams of past performances, such as the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow or the Ballet Opéra de Paris.
All these developments are both generous – many of them are for free to brighten everyday life for the millions of people quarantined or in strict lockdown situations – and important, as art is particularly necessary in times of uncertainty. It offers both refuge from the flood of tragic news and hope in this time of crisis, something that is perhaps shown by the popularity of reading among tips for surviving self-isolation and quarantine. Literature is currently presumably the only creative category that will not suffer as extensively as the rest; reading has always been a mostly solitary enjoyment.
However, there will be a day when every past performance has been streamed and when artists and creators need to return to the less glamourous necessity of generating an income for themselves and their industry. This, however, can only be done the traditional way. Most areas of the arts rely on live audiences and on the rhythm of performance seasons that involve people coming together to create their art. One day, concerts and performances will have to take place again. When this day will be remains uncertain; until then, the sector can only rely on the support of governments and financial solidarity shown by the public. The Czech Republic for instance, is leading by example: people there are buying tickets for cancelled cultural events in order to support the arts scene and its institutions.
While this article does not intend to downplay the seriousness of the situation – the economic consequences of the pandemic are already predicted to be astronomically high, and will thus also affect the arts severely – it is important to remember that there is hope: this is not the first pandemic in the history of humanity that the arts have survived. Art, in some form, has accompanied us from almost the very beginning of our existence as a species, as is visible for instance in discoveries of pre-civilizational instruments and cave drawings in Lascaux or Altamira. Although we don´t often realize, art is as necessary to most of us as is a regular supply of food – or toilet paper.
By Cristina Coellen
By Francesca Halliwell
Italy. The country of Raphael and Botticelli, Giotto and Veronese, da Vinci, Michelangelo, even the Galleria Borghese. Home to some of the Renaissance’s most important artists, not to mention a magnificent ancient civilisation, Europe’s ‘bel paese’ boasts a treasure trove of artistic masterpieces that many nations could only dream of possessing.
Owing to recent theft reports, however, the truth seems somewhat different.
Less than a fortnight ago, European police arrested 23 people on charges of trafficking tens of thousands of archaeological artefacts. The objects, which reportedly date back to the third and fourth centuries B.C., were looted from Calabria before being smuggled out of Italy and auctioned off across Europe.
This isn’t the first time Italian artefacts have been looted and sold off abroad. According to the Carabinieri’s most recent stolen artworks bulletin, 8,405 items have gone missing from Italy in the past year alone.
Nor is the phenomenon a recent one. It dates back as far as 1969, when a specialised police squad – the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – was created by the Italian government to track down stolen paintings and statues. Though this first-of-its-kind art corps has allegedly recovered over three million objects since its foundation, its mission is still far from complete: more than one million Italian artworks remain missing or stolen.
The scale of their task is quite monumental. In 2014, these so-called Monuments Men were tasked with tracking the theft of Sicilian treasures worth over 40 million euros. The ensuing investigation culminated in a series of Europe-wide arrests, in addition to the recovery of over 20,000 objects and the dismantling of a criminal organisation that had been set up solely to smuggle Sicilian archaeological goods.
Italy has fallen victim to art crime more often than any other country. Many of its missing artworks are now deemed untraceable, having been stolen long before the art squad was even established. Something of a miracle is required for their recovery, especially when owners don’t even recognise the importance of their artefacts. This was the case in October 2017, when a couple living in New York discovered they had been using a 2,000-year-old mosaic that once decorated Emperor Caligula’s ship as a coffee table in their apartment.
The thought that lingers? Italy’s artistic heritage is fading into obscurity. And in this newly globalised age where materialism is rife, many seem blinkered to the severity of the situation.
Some believe museum directors are too often blinded by the short-term financial benefits of selling Italian art abroad. Only eight of Leonardo da Vinci’s 24 major extant works remain in Italy, while the largest collections of Titian’s works and Raphael’s drawings are housed abroad: the former in Madrid, the latter in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
To make matters worse, an Italian court recently ruled that da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man could be shown at an exhibition in Paris. The decision was a controversial one, not least vis-à-vis the possible implications for Italy’s cultural heritage. Specialists also contended it was too fragile to travel and risked being damaged by the lighting in the Louvre display. Upon hearing the ruling, heritage conservation group Italia Nostra released a statement saying, “today is not a good day for protection in Italy.”
When the Louvre announced plans to hold a da Vinci exhibition, Italian politicians instantly ramped up nationalist rhetoric. “Leonardo is Italian, he only died in France,” announced Lucia Borgonzoni, an undersecretary at Italy’s Ministry of Culture.
At least the whereabouts of the Vitruvian Man are being closely monitored. Plenty of prestigious Italian works have disappeared without a trace, including da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was recently sold via an intermediary to the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Many believe the painting to have vanished, with speculation abounding that it is on display in his superyacht, which he bought for 500 million Euros in 2015.
The whereabouts of both Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence and Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man also remain a mystery. While the former was stolen from an oratory in Palermo in 1969, the latter was snatched by the Nazis in Poland during World War II.
Natural disasters and climate change have brought another dimension to Italy’s cultural crisis. Geographical instability has long ravaged the peninsula, leaving nothing but damage and destruction in its wake. Hardly anything is spared, not least Italy’s cultural capital. When disaster strikes, basilicas are flooded, monuments are torn to the ground and paintings disintegrate beyond all recognition.
Take for example the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 2016, as well as half the façade of the 15th-century church of Sant’Agostino in Amatrice. Quake-induced cracks have even appeared on the Colosseum in recent years.
Just under a month ago, the city of Venice – an artistic treasure in itself – was submerged by three major floods. Images of the inundated St. Mark’s Basilica sent shockwaves around the world, illustrating the damage caused to its tiling and mosaics. The floods are the worst to have hit Venice in more than half a century, and according to scientists, they are set to continue.
Damages incurred will take years to repair, and what is most frustrating is that they could have been avoided. In the 1980s, city authorities launched a project to build hydraulic barriers and improve sea defences, though delays and budget overruns impeded its progress. Had it been fully functioning by 13th November, the disaster described by Prime Minister Conte as “a blow to the art of Italy” would have been narrowly avoided. It seems there may be a grain of truth in Paul Lechat’s observation that “the Italian has no use for the long-term” after all.
Yet for the plethora of criticisms that have been levelled against Italians, it would be wholly unjust to view Italy’s cultural crisis as a product of their propensity for chaos and disorder.
Art crimes and natural disasters are gnawing away at Italy’s cultural identity, and the tragedy at stake here must not be undermined. To quote leading art historian Tomaso Montanari, “in Italy the stones, the buildings, the churches and the artworks are the backbone of the country. The loss of our roots means we have lost the future.”
Is the image of French chic that abounds in popular culture nothing more than a misleading stereotype?
Picture a ‘French girl,’ and the image which inevitably springs to mind is that of Brigitte Bardot’s effortless beauty in Et Dieu créa la femme; Anna Karina’s mesmerising allure in Vivre sa Vie; Catherine Deneuve’s impeccable wardrobe in Belle de Jour.
The ‘French girl’ is the epitome of cool; she exudes natural perfection and sophistication. She has infiltrated our wardrobe (I am wearing Breton stripes as I write this), she has Pinterest boards devoted to her: she has captivated us with her “je ne sais quoi.” The media churns out articles on an almost daily basis instructing us how to wear our hair, which clothes to wear and what attitude to adopt in order to achieve ‘French girl style.’
Yet the ‘cool French girl’ maintains a sense of careless and effortless style while adhering to strict fashion rules. She is thin, but eats croissants for breakfast and is never seen without a baguette under her arm. She is elegant and casual, all at the same time.
The ‘cool French girl’ is a paradox.
This idea of effortless perfection poses problems: the pursuit of perfection is an all-consuming, and ultimately futile quest, and the stereotype of a thin, white woman does not represent today’s France. The image which we all recognise and idolise is not accommodating of other skin tones, body types or genders.
This is an issue fashion journalist Alice Pfeiffer has picked up on in her book Je ne suis pas Parisienne, in which she aims to deconstruct the myth of the ‘French girl.’ Through the book, Pfeiffer shares her experiences of being held to impossibly high standards, expected to maintain a simultaneous image of carefully cultivated perfection and insouciance. She shares insulting comments made about her weight and her style, and ultimately declares the society’s preconceived idea of the ‘French girl’ to be sexist, elitist and unachievable.
But, is the image of the French girl changing? Today, the body positivity movement is thriving, and more and more marginalised groups are taking to social media and using technology to create their own platforms through which they are able to take control of their own narratives.
Amandine Gay is a French-African filmmaker, journalist and activist based in Montreal. Through her directorial debut Ouvrir la voix (Speak Up), a documentary in which women of African descent discuss their identity as African women, Gay aims to "occupy public space and explain why the intersection of discriminations faced by black women in France and Belgium is as problematic as it is political."
Yet there still remain positive aspects of the image of ‘French chic’ that we can use as sources of inspiration. In 80s supermodel Ines de Fressange’s book Parisian Chic: A Style Guide, she writes that, to be a true Parisian, a woman must never neglect herself for the sake of adhering to convention or trends. This idea can be interpreted to promote the idea of self-acceptance, as can the trope of minimal makeup associated with the French, which appears to be making a resurgence today.
The ‘French girl,’ then, must be reclaimed. We do not need to abolish the image completely: it is an iconic souvenir of the history of French literature and visual culture, but the stereotype needs, however, to shift into accordance with modern-day French society.
On October 2nd of this year, the aptly named campaign group BP or not BP?, whose mission was to end the oil firm BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company, celebrated a hard-earned victory. After seven years of consistent campaigning, alongside a boycott of the company from high-profile individual actors such as Mark Rylance, the RSC decided to cut short their five-year contract with BP at the end of this year. In response, BP or not BP? issued this statement:
We’re over the moon to see the RSC understanding and acting on the reality of the climate emergency. Oil companies like BP have no place in our museums, galleries and theatres.
They are not the only activist group opposed to fossil-fuel companies’ continued sponsorship of the arts, nor is the RSC by any means the only cultural institution coming under fire from protestors for accepting such donations. The call for more ethical corporate sponsorship is being echoed throughout the arts world. The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House are just a handful of the prestigious bastions of the British art establishment under pressure to review their corporate sponsorship partnerships with oil and gas firms. In 2016, BP announced plans to invest £7.5 million in British art institutions from 2018, but in the era of Extinction Rebellion, these institutions could find that such partnerships leave them out of touch with the values of their visitors and facing a pressing moral dilemma.
The resistance to such sponsorship from British artists has been increasingly relentless, collaborative and, as expected, creative. One protest group with a particularly high-profile artistic output is Liberate Tate. Founded in 2010, the group of activists mobilised a spirit of ‘creative disobedience’ to complicate the Tate institution’s relationship with BP and push them into dropping the sponsorship agreement, which did in fact come to an end in May 2016. Their unsanctioned performances have seen the installation of a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade in the Tate Modern’s turbine gallery, and a simulated oil spill at the institution’s summer gala in response to the environmentally disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in 2010.
Such activist groups accuse oil companies of using cultural sponsorship to essentially purchase the ‘social licence to operate’. Stripping back the PR veneer of this phrase, this entails boosting their brand’s reputation through the association with cultural goods and the establishment of influential relationships, a practice which allows them free reign to legitimately expand environmentally damaging operations in a time of climate crisis. However, seen in another light the very nature of their controversial commercial activity prompts oil and gas companies to donate more generously to cultural institutions, since they perhaps serve to benefit more from such positive marketing than other ‘cleaner’ enterprises.
Indeed, the relationship between environmental sustainability and financial decision-making in the arts remains a vexed one. Government spending in the arts saw a cut of almost 30% between 2010 and 2016, and the question remains whether innovation in the arts can be sustained without this backing. Britain’s cultural institutions are renowned for their pioneering and creative stance, and the artistic output is second to none. If we remove oil and gas firms from the equation, are there alternative sources of sponsorship with the capacity or desire to replace these environmentally damaging corporations?
Examining these questions in light of the controversy around the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award is revealing. Marketing itself as the most prestigious portrait award in the world, the sought-after accolade recently celebrated is 40th year at the Gallery and its 30th year of BP sponsorship. At his presentation of the 2019 award, the CEO of BP Bob Dudley addressed the current sponsorship controversy:
“We respect different opinions and welcome discussion, even debate, about our involvement. But, let’s also remember there are many different points of view.”
Yet these different points of view are becoming more polarised in tandem with increasing public awareness of the climate crisis. BP asserts that its financial support to the gallery has enabled five million people to enjoy the award free of charge since 1990 and has given artists the necessary support to pursue their passion. However, prior to BP taking up the sponsorship for this award, it was sponsored by none other than British American Tobacco. Obviously such a partnership would be unthinkable these days. In 2016, there was outcry from medical experts against the art establishment’s lingering ties with tobacco companies, and it seems that the same fate could await big oil firms.
Public opinion and government priorities can change dramatically over 30 years, and the day could be approaching where government policy regarding the promotion of oil and gas declares it to be morally unacceptable. Until that day however, cultural institutions that declare themselves in favour of environmental sustainability while accepting donations from companies whose practices actively harm the environment, face accusations of hypocrisy. In an age of global climate protest and social media activism, these accusations cannot be brushed away lightly. Many agree that the art arena is one in which the corporate world should not be at the forefront of the story. However, these protests against corporate sponsorship will most likely gain more mainstream attention, particularly from young visitors, a consideration that should be taken seriously by cultural entities if they wish to remain relevant and respected in the arts world and in today’s society.
First, might I profess with dismay that I do not know what it is like to be a man, nor will I ever fully understand life as a man. However, what I can contribute to the ever-topical discussion of masculinity is an ode to the penis and a push to embrace the body you’ve been given, all from the mind of a feminist.
‘Penis’, a small segment from Robert Horrocks’ book Masculinity in Crisis, delves into the relationship between men and their ‘rhythm sticks’, emphasising the need for self-acceptance and pride. Big-headed or big-shafted, curved or straight, men we’ve seen them all. And, with about 40% of the male population with penises that don’t always function the way they should, it’s about time someone gave the little-man a lot of praise.
“The penis is the source of a man’s greatest vulnerability, and his greatest feeling of power. It is a place from where he expresses love, hate, fear, tenderness, contempt, friendship, disgust, and also a place where he can become completely expressionless, without feeling. It is used as a battering ram against women; as a weapon of revenge; as an expression of love and adoration; it is also a little boy’s willy, a dick, a shlong, the python, prick, rhythm stick, ding-a-ling.
It can be anything. We might say: the penis is the man. One cannot talk about penises separate from their owners, just as we cannot talk about ‘sexuality’ in abstract, or talk about ‘sexual problems’ separate from the problems that people have in relationships.
So men feel about their penises as they feel about themselves: proud, shy, afraid, disgusted, ignorant, loving, hating, angry – the whole gamut of human feeling is potentially found between a man and his penis.
Sexually a penis enables a man to penetrate deeply into a woman (or a man) and caress her (him) there. Thus the penis in this respect is bound up with relating to others: it is a means of contact. But as a baby or a boy, the male finds the penis as a source of comfort for himself, maybe a substitute for the breast, something he can manipulate at will. He discovers masturbation, which again can mean so many things to different men- comfort, company, desolation, lust, fear, love.
Thus the penis is, as it were, poised between narcissism and altruism. It can be used to relate to oneself, or to others. Quite often these two directions get confused, and one hears a woman angrily accuse a man of masturbating inside her during sex. So one can go through the motions of relating sexually but in fact remain completely in a world of one’s own. In that world, the penis may loom large as a kind of fantasy friend, or lover, or mother or father.
The penis is also concerned with performance. It gets erect, remains erect during sexual intercourse and then subsides. But what anxiety is aroused in men about this! The erection becomes a fetish, that measures one’s manhood, virility, athleticism, or whatever. How afraid many men are not to have an erection, when in fact that often signifies something emotionally important: I don’t want to make love, I don’t want to relate to you, I feel afraid, I feel childlike, and so on.
‘Keep your pecker up’ men say to each other – reflecting the desperate need to keen the damn thing erect. Never mind if you feel depressed or sad or lonely, or bored or angry or uninterested – keep the flag flying, make the python do its tricks, hoist the top-sail, expand the gland- what a mythology surrounds penis performance! Mae West celebrated and mocked it in her famous gibe: ‘Is that a six-gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?’”.
Roger Horrocks Penis (162 – 166).
There is something majestic about the penis; a mix of adoration, fear and fascination that accompanies it. Indeed, Roger Horrocks recounts his own phallic experiences. From school P.E days where he and his comrades were forced to swim naked, where they’d spend the full hour comparing the circumcised with the uncircumcised (which ‘ding-a-ling’ was superior?)…to discovering a freckle on the foreskin of his penis and deciding there and then it was cancer: Embrace death now and enjoy masturbation whilst the penis is still there?
The penis is “a trail blazing-experience”, a source of ready-made comfort. Though, the difficulty comes from claiming the grandeur of the penis; the fear that this in itself is sexist. Ludicrous as it might be because the act of sex is inherently at its best when enjoyed by both the man and woman. A so-called ‘animal beauty’, a power that our civilisation unrightfully shuns. After all, the penis is inescapably animal, primitive. Think with your head all day and wake up early morning and it’s hard. I bet you’re unable to think your way out of that one!
Men today need to reclaim this sense of beauty and power about the penis. Accept the animal qualities within us. Freud says we all yearn for the sheer animal side of being alive, so let’s reclaim it.
In recent years, Syria has repeatedly made headlines in the West, detailing the horrific events of the civil war. Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of this Citynarrates the long tale of the Syrian city Aleppo. Though the novel’s main historical setting is between the 1960s and 2000s, flashbacks to earlier times mean the novel unravels Aleppo’s tale right from the First World War up until the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What No Knives in the Kitchens of this Cityshows us is Syria’s slow degeneration under the Assad regime. We can see that the war’s outbreak was not a spontaneous event but rather had been a long time in coming.
With Aleppo at its centre, the novel follows the lives of an exceedingly large cast of characters, all told through the voice of a single narrator who, though a real character in the story, remains a barely felt, almost invisible, presence. The author, Khaled Khalifa, has made it a recurring trope in his novels to explore the influence of a single emotion on his characters. In his previous novel, In Praise of Hatred, he explored the way his characters were motivated by their hate. In No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, the focus is now on shame. The narrator’s mother is ashamed of her youngest daughter, Suad, because of her disability, and so she locks her away, waiting for her to die. Sawsan is ashamed of her past sexual encounters, and so undergoes hymen reconstruction surgery and throws herself into a devoutly religious lifestyle. Nizar’s family are ashamed of his homosexuality, and so have him sent to prison. The only character who seems capable of resisting the all-pervading shame in the novel is in fact Nizar himself, who does not attempt to hide or conceal his past. The non-judgmental Nizar’s acceptance and compassion lead him to act as an emotional confidante for many of the other characters in the novel.
On a more societal level, shame cripples both the regime and resistance to the regime. The character Jean’s so-called ‘theory of historical shame’ details the inseparable link between shame and fear, and the debilitating societal effects this entails. Jean ‘sketched out the inhabitants of a city, who shared the air of that city but were afraid of each other.’ The theory is one of universal, mutual fear with ‘minority sects afraid of majorities, and the many afraid of the despotism of the few’, and ‘races and religions and sects afraid of the President and his mukhabarat’ and ‘the President afraid of his aides and his own guard’.
The hopelessness of Aleppo’s stagnation is exemplified in the eponynmous scene where an Aleppian man set his wife and four children on fire, then committed suicide with a kitchen knife as he screamed at his neighbors, who were watching dispassionately, that dying in a fire was more honorable than waiting to starve. He asked them bitterly,
“Are there no knives in the kitchens of this city?”
The novel makes for interesting and evocative reading both as a lesson in Syrian history and also as an insight into the circumstances preceding the civil war.
I had a vague idea that Paul Theroux was some form of literatus but I had never read anything by him nor heard much about him and it was through loyalty to his son that I picked up this book. I naively presumed that the younger Theroux raised the profile of the senior and that there wouldn’t be much to it. At this point it would be trite to say: “How wrong I was”, but imagine words to that effect. The book had the same slow-burning but inexorably gripping effect as one of the better Graham Greene novels with intriguing characters buoyed by a flowing plot. This opinion didn’t manifest immediately as initially it was an irritating read. It took a good 30 pages or so however to realise that the reason it was so uncomfortable and frustrating was because Theroux wanted it to be.
The book is set in Kowloon Tong, a district in Hong Kong, shortly before the territory/colony returned to Chinese control in 1997 (“the Chinese Take-away”) and it is based around the lives of Neville ‘Bunt’ Mullard and his mother Betty. The political background is salient to the book. The encroaching fog of the opening scene imitates the approaching Chinese take over and China itself is encapsulated by the insidious figure of Mr. Hung. Mr. Hung is the educated Chinaman who ‘offers’ to buy Bunt’s majority share in his late father’s company after the sudden death of his father’s business partner. We never actually see Hung be violent, but it is certainly hinted at, perhaps much like the western view of China in the late 90s. Within this broader political context is a story about love and relationships.
The plot centres around the 43-year-old Bunt and his mother Betty as they desperately cling to their passé ways and the stunted Bunt stumbles into love. Still living together despite their relative wealth, the cloistered existence and narrow-mindedness of the mother and son makes for an irritating read. They are misogynistic, racist, and avaricious. Bunt, although pretty unlikeable, (he frequents ‘blue hotels’ and is aroused by Mei-ping when she is at her most vulnerable), is somehow still pitiable, perhaps because he is buffeted by both Betty and Mr. Hung. Hopelessly naïve, Bunt’s refusal to recognise what is in front of him is agonising and lends the book a dramatic irony. Unlike in Greek tragedy however, this is never realised and the irritating experience of reading the book continues. There is no satisfaction.
Betty on the other hand is just awful. She tosses around the phrase “Chinky-Chonks” with the easy charm of an ape hurling shit, and when her son is bereft, she helpfully reminds him “You’ll find someone else. It’s true. They all look the same.” The frequent racism is somewhat galling and although it is mostly focalised through the characters to paint them as racist themselves, the characterisation of Mr. Fung as ‘evil Chinaman’ seems slightly Victorian in its easy sinophobia, but perhaps that is more due to Betty and Bunt’s backwardness than Theroux’s.
The inanity of their routine and mindset makes you want to shake the book until they fall out of it and change. It took this much frustration to realise that the redeeming feature and the reason I still held the book was the sense that they did have potential to change and that they didn’t necessarily choose to be such awful people. Tragedy pervades the cloying intimacy of mother and son as we find out quite early on (early enough that I confess I had forgotten this detail until I flicked back through) that Bunt’s older brother, another Bunt, died in his infancy. Bunt is therefore two people to Betty, one of which is the lost eternal infant, which goes some way to explain her suffocating mothering. Similarly sad, Betty’s late husband and his adulterating ways hang over the book like the Hong Kong smog. Bunt himself is a perennial outsider. Never having known England, nor truly assimilating with Hong Kong, he is from and going nowhere he has known. The rhadamanthine relationship with his mother perhaps explains and somewhat mitigates his warped attitude towards women and sex and further contributes to his isolation.
The book then is not a satisfying or comforting read; it is a challenge. Arcane political manoeuvres catalyse a trial of relationships to no obvious end. There is no conclusion or catharsis and the pervading sense is one of nebulous unease, perhaps much like the uncertainty of Hong Kong’s future. It is not what I’d describe as a beach-read, more of an angst-ridden commute-read. Theroux himself describes this as “the story of Hong Kong”, and the Hong Kong of this book is one shrouded in mist, machinations, and money.