Nonsense on the Wireless

August 04, 2020

Today 2020-08-03 Monday on BBC Radio 4 .00 pm and 4.30 pm - Simon Schama on NewYork Art Galleries and the kindergarten-like Infinity Monkey Cage.

Mr Schama waxed hardly-lyrical for about half an hour about modernist art in a few galleries in NewYork – ending his ‘turn’ with a call to listeners to ‘do whatever they can ‘for the galleries and museums now presently closed’ and then he followed-through with an affirmation that to experience the art which they store ‘makes life worth living’. In so many words.

Mr Schama’s ideas on modernist art were in the main what I assume to be based on a sense of ‘vitalism’ about modernist artworks; that sheer overpowering display and splash is sufficient in many cases, or at the very least the crucial ingredient.

There was some – pretty elementary – appreciation of psychology in a woman’s multitudinous artwork self-portraits;; a woman whom we are told dressed herself up like Lon Chaney in a million attitudes mimicking life. But also we were told so as to put forward the idea that there is no core self in any individual.

Yet somehow this artist was able at the same time and here and there to ‘get beyond the mask’; whereabouts – surprise, surprise - there was not the expected nothing (i.e. no core self) but in the instance Mr Schama gave, there was a portrait of a high flying businesswoman’s anxious ageing well of sense of emptiness. But, I ask, this was surely only another mask so does it really matter?

Brutalism in architecture was praised and responded to with joy and awe by Mr Schama; as if the brassneck arrogance of its statements of domination of power were laudable and not a symptom of an age lost to nature and to the holy.

Many instances – one such was one of Mark Rothco’s artworks – Mr Schama appreciated as no more than optical tricks of perception, and as little else. Rothco himself withdrew the artwork concerned from its commissioners because he felt that the restaurant which had commissioned him was disgustingly not the right place for his work. Too haute cuisine too high cost; Rothco preferred Chinese takeaways we were told.

Mr Schama is a person who loves the bright brashness of an urban hothouse such as was (and to some extent still is) New York, in those days in the sixties and seventies when he was first (resident?) there. Vulgarity, as the Victorians called it, is his mustard on his sandwich, and art as vulgarity is a widening of traditional ideas of aesthetics which a vulgar age, an age of action yes, and of busyness, yes, and of vitality, yes, but an age of bitter hardness of heart has created and rejoiced in.

Like those 90 minute strings of OTT GCI action scenes of today which call themselves movies, it’s not ‘all good fun’ and ‘a harmless delight’ at all. These artforms tell us whom we believe we are – not as behind masks, but character-wise – about which one of us would cross the road to help a stranger in difficulty – and which one of us would put the difficulty down to ‘evolution’ or to ‘covid’ or simply put it as being ‘not my problem’.

Men and women today, here where I live, drive around in cars that are too large to fit many of our streets; cars having all the traits and trappings of brutalist design. Huge and broad wheels, tyres, pickup truck style saloons and SUVs, usually in black or red or some very loud statement colour, a front end and a back end of designs reminiscent of a bulldozer-like power, or of a military brutishness, drivers sat high up; the whole setup offering a prescription of command and presence to the person at the wheel.

And surprise! Those behind the wheel act and drive with greater aggression than do others, and are happy overmuch to just take the road from other drivers, almost as if they thought it were their right to do so. That’s enough.

Brian Cox and his crew on ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ programme which followed Mr Schama’s; today; well, they surpassed themselves in immature smugness. Every now and then a collective flutter, a rippled chuckle, of tickled laughter which clearly said of the group: “aren’t we the people!” and so bonding them in their shallow levities and presumptive collective intelligence.

These people have a thing about earth not being ‘the centre of the universe’, as if that fact had bearing on some idea of theirs as to what religion is about, and specifically about what is Christ and his Way. I asked myself – how can earth be the centre of the universe when clearly the centre of the universe was right here on the other end of my radio and talking bilge at me.

The talk was about how, when the participants were young, they perceived life and any meaning – and how that panned out as they got older. The ‘game’ was planned as, or became, – I don’t know which – a means to belittle religion once again (a stape for the show) as being for ‘small people’ - can we say “children” these days? Religion being some innocent sense of awe at existence which one is able to deal with rationally when one comes of age. Thus another puerile attack.

Then talk of ‘worshipping snails’,, and also ‘whales’, drifted around a few minutes, with intermittent mocking in a form of parodic hymn-like singing, in again, childish singing voices. The Lord Jesus was mentioned two or three times as being ‘a joke’ and with some amount of ridicule and derision. In ‘baby’ voices again

Had the programme substituted Judaism or Muslim faiths for Christianity – and associated worship of snails and whales, sung in mock-children’s voices these religion’s prayers etc - well – major ructions - and maybe police intevention and investigations into ‘abuses of rights’ ‘inciting hatred’ etc etc? It truly was that nasty and prejudicial to The Lord Jesus.

But The Lord Jesus was ahead of all this; and knew that he, his name, and his followers would be having to deal with this sort of thing. There’s no great ruckass in the press or on broadcast media about anti-Christian sentiment at all anywhere is there - no – further - about mocking The Lord – this goes for ‘fun’ and is acceptable as a standard target instead.

Again standing on our honours about rights to other religions, but the cultural heritage of The West and of Britain can be – like Cecil Rhodes statue or like Banksy’s walls, be knocked down, or sold for a great price (of laughs)

The show ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ is also a shambles scientifically-speaking – more is said about the participants by the participants – it’s a show in which chiefly people talk about themselves, and in doing so make more of very little, as if somehow tittle-tattle were a reputable boost to one’s standing.

Like much Radio 4 magazine-type comedy shows it is ugly and pernicious, a very bad model to anyone who listens to it prima facie so as to take on board what is said and the attitudes expressed. The same BBC wonders why so much of life today is shocking and dreary and tainted by poor behaviour. The show is cliquish and ‘sniggering’ and insularly ‘self-chuffed’.

One more item to mull over. Take note of the new ‘language’ being used – in business as well as in the arts – by presenters on media and by interviewers. The ‘touchy-feelly’ ‘gentle as she goes’ approach to answering questions or to putting them.

The aim of using such language seems to me to be for its users to show ‘delicacy’ and delicacy here indicates ‘reasonableness’ so that the speaker is ‘nice’ and ‘considerate’ and has ‘done everything humanly possible’ to fix or to make up for or to make it easier etc etc. This form of language has devolved from perhaps and evolved out of Anglican clergy speech of the 1970,80, 90s and in some places is still current today. The word ‘regretable’ is used often – to mean ‘I didn’t like it’ or ‘it was nasty’; and the word ‘unfortunate’ to mean ‘it went wrong’, or ‘it shouldn’t have been done’; and the words ‘you have to understand’ to mean ‘I think….’ and so on. Things which are sore thumbs are ‘delicate matters’ and ‘every avenue is being explored to resolve them’

This language disances the subject matter by way of its soft-peddaling nature; thus making even the most atrocious acts and situations able to be discussed and empathised with and on the wrong side, blame to be hinted at in vague numerous numinous directions, and much interspersed pollyfilla-type talk to be trowelled into the gaps in continuity and reasoning.

Of course it’s all bad faith; and in at least two big ways. The first is that the speakers are no better or worse than you are or I am – they are not ‘goody two shoes’ they only want to appear to be so. In their ‘unofficial selves’ they are human like any of us, and I bet use ‘real’ language.

The second bad faith is the obfuscation of key points in what goes for debate these days. (In fact this is a separate but related issue: why are there no debates as such these days, but instead only ‘daily doses of ‘what to think’ spooned down us? Part of the reason is this perfidious ‘technique’ of dealing with queries and issues by using the ‘cotton wool’ language I’ve just noted)

Thus issues instead of being raised and given a valid weight and pressure, opened and dug into; are instead dissolved and diluted into ‘just some vague uninteresting unimportant’ affair and such.

So while we have lost the ability to distinguish issues, we have a show like The Monkey Cage priming us in its crass, reductive, self-assumed, and over-assuming worldview – the name ‘worldview’ gives it better credit than it deserves – and thereby addling our minds even further.

Instead of participants looking upwards at the stars for their answers, and then casting their astrolabes and orreries to get teleological alchemic answers; it were much better they took some time to look inside their own selves, see there and rue, then seek to have repaired their own mistaken and misshapen psyches. In this way to save themselves from the likelihood of them falling into that proverbial ditch