The Story Of The Art Over The Art Itself

London is deep in snow. I try to spend the days in cafes and libraries, to save on heating.

Monday 7th Jan was start of the spring term at Birkbeck; we’re now into the third week. Managed to finish the ‘Body’ essay on Woolf’s Orlando and Carter’s Nights At The Circus, polishing it with minutes to submission time. Probably could have used a few more days on it, but I’m just glad I made the deadlines for both of the Christmas essays. Trouble with this last one was that it took me a whole first draft before I realised what I really wanted to say. So I had to cut out 2000 words or so, worth hours of research and writing. One so wants to put in a note to the tutor with the offcuts, asking if they could somehow be taken into account. ‘I did all this extra work. I know it doesn’t show, but I still did it.’

Am back into the swing of lectures and seminars, while (still) battling a series of colds followed by a weekend of full-blown flu. Could barely think straight over the weekend. Am now feeling much better, but probably out of sheer boredom at not feeling better.


Set texts for the first half of term are: Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and Woolf’s  To the Lighthouse. The humanities ‘Body’ class, meanwhile, continues to be wonderfully diverse from week to week: architecture by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray, a video dance piece by DV8, photographic art by Ingrid Pollard and Deborah Padfield, poetry by Thom Gunn, and Oscar Moore’s newspaper columns about AIDS.

The DV8 piece – ‘Enter Achilles’ – has really made me want to go and see some modern dance shows. London is perfect for this: suddenly trying a whole new branch of culture, just in case you might like it. It’s just a question of finding cheap tickets.

Taste does change with time. For all you know you might now suddenly love, say, avant garde jazz, or ballet, or heavy metal, or modern opera, and not realise it. How would you know? You need to try a little of everything every now and then. With the possible exception of bungee jumping.

But it works the other way too. There’s been reports of people going to see the new Les Miserables film only to realise – while watching it – that they didn’t like musicals after all.

Not me, though. I’ve managed to see two excellent stage musicals in two weeks: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic with Mum (Jan 9th), then Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory (Jan 17th, by myself). They reminded me that, yes, I definitely do still like musicals – the well-written ones.


Right now the media are going a bit silly over David Bowie’s new material, but it’s a kind of weird doublethink – they want something new, and yet they don’t want something new. Not too new. The new Bowie songs will be judged as part of the long-running Bowie narrative first and foremost, rather than on their own merit. The fact he retired for years then suddenly ‘came back’ is treated as if it were as important as the music itself. But that’s how critics work: they can’t actually deal with art in and of itself, it needs to be framed in narratives around the art – genres, biography, backstory, influence. The Story Of The Art is all part of the Art, they imply. Which is unfair. But then, I’m biased.

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The Everyman Taste

Today: I watch a little bit of the Olympics – the dressage final – but as curious as the sport is (horses trotting very precisely to music), I’m still uninterested in it all. Not even at a time when people who don’t usually watch sport are now in fact watching sport. And lots of it.  But my taste seems immutable: I do not like sport. Pity, really. I take no pleasure in not sharing a common taste – no tiresome contrarian I.

On the subject of common tastes, I’ve just been watching a three part TV documentary, All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry. Mr Perry is shown visiting people in Britain from across the class divide, in order to portray them in a series of colourful tapestries. With the tapestries, he manages to pay homage to Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress as well as classic religious paintings, while commenting on 21st century social behaviour, sometimes affectionately, sometimes scathingly.

The programmes themselves rather offend my own taste in documentary making, however. They do that irritating magazine-like thing of having a montage of clips at the start as a kind of framing device, so nothing is ever a surprise. It’s a reminder that when an artist or expert becomes a TV presenter, unless they have a hand in the whole process and treat it like an equal artform (like, say, Jonathan Meades), they’re at the mercy of a formulaic director, one who thinks they know what people like in a documentary. Which is rather ironic when it’s meant to be discussing the nature of taste. Still, at least the series justified itself with the tapestries, by acting as a conventional advert for unconventional art.

Mr Perry has some interesting interpretations on what makes taste, and where taste comes from. He sees it as part of peer group aspiration, of wanting to belong yet also define oneself as an individual. In my case, my taste in Not Liking Sport isn’t any kind of deliberate choice at all. It’s entirely innate; I don’t like sport in the same way as I am left-handed. Some people might point to my schooldays for reasons – I was a classic swot who was good in the classroom but useless in the gym, and one whose parents also were not big followers of sport. But neither was I forced to not like it. There’s certainly no escaping being exposed to sport, particularly football.

And right now, liking sport is the best way to feel Not Alone. But while I’m pleased for the people who take pleasure from the Olympics, I still can’t join in.

Something I am following, however, is another well-publicised discussion on taste. Obligingly, the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine has released its Best Films Ever According To Proper Critics list, which it only does every ten years. The big news is that Vertigo has toppled Citizen Kane from the #1 spot for the first time in 50 years. I enjoy reading all the ensuing articles, until I come across one particular piece in The Guardian that makes a couple of rather sweeping assumptions about the masses:

‘We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane?’

No to ever using the clapping gif, yes to watching all of the film. I suppose that makes me officially too uncommon for The Guardian.

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