Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.

But is it Art?

A few weeks ago, the new Government announced a £19M cut in funding for Arts Council England. Jeremy Hunt followed this up by binning the UK Film Council, since when we’ve had British film and theatre luminaries such as Sam West and Mike Leigh bemoaning these philistinic acts, and even aged Hollywood megastar Clint Eastwood has had his say; he doesn’t like it either, incidentally. It’s hardly surprising that in tough times this film funding quango has received the chop. It is clearly regarded as inessential, and a luxury, and in many ways it is. Farming in this country receives a significant amount of Government subsidy, and no-one would argue against this; we all do need to eat, after all. I can’t think of another industry which is funded to a similar extent to the Arts, and many would argue that the industry needs to become self-sufficient. If exhibitions are put on, plays are written and performed, and films are made that people want to see, they will pay good money to do so, and the industry can be considered a success. The League football industry, for example, receives no funding from the Government; in one sense the opposite is true, and the expectation is that the clubs will give back something to the local community.

But what are the plays, films and Art that make the money? Here are some examples (off the top of my head admittedly): Titanic, Harry Potter, Spiderman, films with Will Smith, films adapted from Dan Brown, The Mousetrap, things by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Monet exhibitions, Dali on the Southbank. What purpose do many of these serve, save to while away a couple of hours of passive entertainment for the proles? They’re certainly not pushing the boundaries, not making people think, not challenging anyone. They get massive backing because they are bankers. People know they are going to be successful. If nothing existed in the Arts but this, we’d continually be moving in a cycle of blockbuster films, the last night of the Proms and singalonga Joseph. Plays like Enron certainly couldn’t make it to the West End, because no-one’s going to take a punt on a play like this, it’s simply too much of a risk. In fact, the play is brilliant; thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. It informs, it educates, it keeps you gripped. This is why the Arts Council needs funding; it’s to promote Art which otherwise would have no outlet. I have no interest in seeing funding for traditional art; if someone paints pretty seascapes, and sells them to people who want it on their living room walls, that’s fine, but you have no need to be funded. So long as Government money is being used to fund ground-breaking, thought-provoking Art in any form, then hurrah for that. One might argue that producing something which few people might wish to see (or think they wish to see) has little point, but that view is discredited by the ‘Enron’ argument, which is a play that made it to broadway. Is the job of the Arts to pander to the public? Certainly not, otherwise we’d be piling money into the sort of tosh mentioned above.

Of course much of the problem lies with the fact that the Arts are seen as elitist in this Country, but that’s more to do with the perception than the reality. There’s no dress code for any theatre in London that I’m aware of, and top prices tend to plateau at about £60. You can often get a decent seat for around the £20 mark. Sam West was on the radio this week talking about his campaign to get a minumum wage of £400 per week for the actors in a recent Shakespeare. Compare this with a visit to Chelsea FC (or any of the top clubs). This is the home of the working class individual, and lacks the elitism of the Arts world. Here you pay around £60 for a ticket, and for this you get to watch people entertain who earn around £100,000 per week. Hasn’t elitism been turned on its head? Football used to be for the people, but now it’s for the people who can afford to shell out £1825 for a season ticket at Arsenal.

You could go and see the Moustrap about 50 times for that price.