'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Gates and Jobs

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope

Philosophy. The very term strikes fear into the hearts of business types and marketeers everywhere. It suggests unwelcome froth or meaningless snobby asides on an otherwise adequate page of 'top line' bullet points. "If only", think the business types, "we could walk around wearing clothing that indicated a good education, and then there'd be no need for such intellectual posturing. By the way, who's this Hegel? Doesn't he work in sales?"

But, in our frazzled CEO's defence, where to find the time? "I don't have time to even eat lunch; how can I be expected to read these nuanced arguments?" they rightly point out. "Is a top line of the Wealth of Nations possible?" Alas, no. Top line information is good for simple tasks - "closing a door" - or ridiculous sweeping stratagems - "invade Russia and stop at Moscow". Such forms of communication are harder for everything in between. This is not - note - a sign of intellectual deficiency, muddled ideas or a failure to be 'on the ball'. It is merely the acceptance that not everything is clear cut.

The School of Athens - Plato points up urging 'blue sky' thinking; Aristotle tells him to calm down and 'check the figures'.
But do not despair! An article in today's Times by Danny Finkelstein brilliantly touched upon an almost biblical spectacle of two great modern - but opposed - philosophies: that of Jobs and Gates.

he Jobs philosophy, wrought from his time at Apple and subsequent exile and resurrection, is Platonic in character. It is one of complete integration; command and control and a striving for the ‘insanely good’ (Plato meekly stuck to 'the Good'). It is the sort of philosophy which is easily understood – and marketed – and idealistic. (The followers of this sort of philosophy can be fanatical in their devotion.) The universe, according to this vision fits neatly together and can be explained through Divine forms and geometry. Gates’ Aristotelian philosophy is a bit messier and complex and more concerned with economic sustainability and common sense. It's not as elegant or pretty, but hell, it's a lot cheaper. 

Which leads me to Alexander Pope. What is worse than avoiding these fresh waters of tempting knowledge all together? The answer is merely dipping one's toe in, recoiling and withdrawing. This trend of 'short-cut learning' for the man on the move is both cringe worthy and  potentially damaging. A manger who has consumed and proceeds to regurgitate the latest business text is a dangerous thing. Indeed, a
fter 200 pages of the latest managerial educational bile we suddenly realise, amidst the 'case studies' and 'stats' proving poorly made points, that the book is, in fact, vacuous nonsense. At best these authors sit slumped, pathetically, on the shoulders of some greater thinker, slightly dizzy at the heights they've somehow managed to land on. 

The books consumed, then, by many in business, present us with simplistic and deceptively elegant - let's say 'Jobseian' - ideas, which translate poorly into the nuances and problems day-to-day business. And nuances, unfortunately, must be displayed in more than a few lines.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

John Martin Apocalypse Review

On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood 
Robed in the sable garb of woe
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.

The Bard ~
Thomas Gray

As with the other great event of 1789, there are many overlapping possibilities and routes for interpretation with the figure of John Martin. With him, a horizon of potential explanations opens before us – from Madness to Mammon. The opening image of the Tate Britain's exhibition is Martin's 'The Bard' and it can provide us with several possibilities for understanding his oeuvre. 

The Bard is an arresting and stunning display of man and nature; an image brought about in a cultural milieu of Scott and Wordsworth. The Bard’s mad gesture blends with the jutting landscape; the English army’s progress is defined by the river it trundles past.

Despite the drama of the scene, there is a clear link between Martin's early works and eighteenth-century painters such as Claude. Here – as with 'Pan and Syrinx' – Martin follows the French example, drawing on lush greens and soft blues to provide a pleasant and harmonious landscape for classical games to be played out on. This was familiar and inoffensive. Yet there is a visually striking difference between pieces like this and his other work. Martin’s 1812 piece ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ displays a pulsating and despairing scene of a landscape consuming and ruining the individual. The themes, however, collapse into one: Martin is saying that there is essentially man and nature; and despite your modern factories, steam engines and mills, this remains the case. Touching on the sublime is intimately connected with this duality. 

In another sense the Bard represents a deeper idea. The old prophet – the last crumbling bastion of an antediluvian way of thinking – madly attempting to stem the current of an England representing order and progress at the expense of older values. In vain does he challenge the monotonous and inevitable advance of the English army. 

With images like Belshazzar's Feast (1820) Martin takes this critique of the material a step further, thundering a message of Old Testament retribution to a rapt audience. And what better way to remind the masses of His wrath than the vision of hell and the apocalypse? Martin’s apocalyptic scenes of crumbling towers, cities engulfed by torrents of fire and frenzied armies baying wildly into decadent cities became hugely popular for many.

In this sense, Martin is doing more than merely painting images on canvas; he is not simply presenting intellectual ideas or narratives. The overly refined messages, references and puns that defined much of eighteenth-century art in England was already giving way to a love of more emotion and feeling. Martin, like the later Turner, is speaking to the viewers souls; searing lasting impressions. We do not, despite the explanations provided by the Tate, need to delve too deeply to see the messages behind visual testaments like 'The Fall of Babylon'. 

Indeed the exhibition represents a broader sense of spiritual unease felt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. It is in this sense that reviews – such as that of Jonathan Jones in the Guardian – pathetically miss the point with Martin. Nineteenth-century Britain after the fall of Napoleon was neither spiritually nor materially stable. It's a sense of unease that for many heralded the black satanic smoke of mechanised Britain blotting out any idea of religion or community; stability succumbing to Peterloo Massacres and negligent Laissez-Faire giving way to Revolutions. 

That revolutionary apocalypse did not engulf Britain says more for the ability of an establishment to listen, adapt and integrate ideas – such as those of Martin or Carlyle – than it does for any inherent British stability post-1815. While Martin's painting lack subtlety and delicacy, they had a profound impact. Attacking the overly complex paintings, the wildly animated figures and pyrotechnic madness of Martin as crass, negates the strong practical reasoning behind them. The Bard then, who is on the cusp of a dramatic leap into the thundering current, does not simply represent the failure to cling to ancient ideas in the face of progress or a glorious romantic outburst culminating in self-immolation. Instead it represents the practical success artists like Martin had in appealing beyond the material and to the very souls of the huddled masses of the nineteenth-century, untouched or unaware of ideas of progress, economics and democracy.