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Thursday March 3rd 2011
Books, arts and culture
Prospero
The curious journey of Curious George
Mar 2nd 2011, 20:29 by E.G. | SAN FRANCISCO
THE little monkey had a happy life in Africa—eating bananas, swinging on vines. When he was captured, by a man in a yellow hat, his distress was written on his face. He gaped at his body, clearly shocked to find it trapped in a brown sack, winched at the neck. But the little monkey quickly recovered his equanimity. By the time he boarded the rowboat, he was sad to be leaving Africa, but a little curious, too.
Thus began the adventures of Curious George, one of the most popular and enduring children’s characters of all time. During the course of seven original stories by H.A. and Margret Rey, he moved to America, joined the circus, and became an astronaut. Those are big adventures for a little monkey. But none was quite as dramatic as what had happened to his creators in real life. “Curious George Saves the Day”, an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through March 13th, makes that much clear.
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Turning over stones in East Berlin
Mar 2nd 2011, 18:11 by C.G. | BERLIN
HEAVEN underground is the best way to describe my experience of the 61st Berlinale, Berlin’s annual international film festival, which ended on February 20th. It all felt a bit like descending into a world of film and fantasy, of dim lights and flickering promises.
 
In Heaven Underground” ("Im Himmel, Unter der Erde") is also the name of the film I enjoyed the most at the festival. Apparently I was not alone, as this documentary about the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee ended up with an audience award in the Panorama festival section.
 
I have never been to this 130-year-old cemetery in East Berlin. Nor did I know that it is the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe where funerals still take place. Britta Wauer, a young Berlin film director, has interviewed a number of people from all over the world who are descendants of Jews buried in this cemetery. Her subjects all travelled to the Weissensee cemetery, after reading a notice she placed in a newspaper for ex-Berliners called Aktuell (Ms Wauer expected 20 or 30 replies to the ad, but received 300 in the first two weeks). “In Heaven Underground” offers an array of funny and difficult stories about a remote and now all but abandoned place. Hidden behind walls in the middle of a housing estate in the outskirts of town, in an area covered with trees, rhododendron, ivy and lilac, this 40-hectare (about 100 acres) site looks like a fairy-tale forest. The cemetery houses some 115,000 grave sites, some of which look like small mausoleums.  
In the year following 1869, when German Jews were officially recognised as German citizens with equal rights, the Jewish community in Berlin grew to around 65,000. In the 1930s around 170,000 Jews lived in Berlin; a number that shrunk to 1,500 after the second world war. Somehow this cemetery, designed in 1870, wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis. The Jewish community in Berlin now numbers more than 12,000—the largest in Germany—80% of whom hail from the former Soviet Union. Now the cemetery has gravestones with Russian names in Cyrillic letters, and lots of flowers (though it is Jewish custom to leave stones). William Wolf, an octogenarian rabbi of German origin, has a good view of these mixing traditions, calling it “a captivating necropolis which reflects the change of times.”
In one interview, a man named Harry Kindermann describes the cemetery as a somewhat macabre playground in the late 1930s, when Jewish children could no longer play safely on the street. When he was 12 years old in 1939, his father, a bricklayer who worked at the cemetery, taught him how to drive on the cemetery’s grounds, which was tricky given the narrow paths.
 
Sebastian Schulz and his wife Susanne live in the flat on the top floor of the cemetery’s administration building. This is where Rabbi Martin Riesenburger, the cemetery’s rabbi from June 1943 until the end of the war, once lived. They explain that they don’t find living at a cemetery creepy. We meet Bernhard Epstein and his wife, who came all the way from Florida to visit his grandmother’s grave. This is one of the most affecting moments in the film. He cried when he stood by her grave for the first time, speaking to her in German: “Grandmother Helene, we have come to visit you. Sadly, grandpa can’t visit you, he was gassed in Auschwitz. Your middle son was also gassed in Auschwitz. Your elder son, my father, died on the Russian front. I only got to know your youngest son in Budapest.”
 
Ron Kohls, the current cemetery inspector, comes across almost like a museum’s director. He reveals a thorough registry with all of the names of the deceased, weighted with history and stories. What becomes clear by the end of this film is that the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery will soon have quite a few more visitors passing through.
 
"Im Himmel, unter der Erde" by Britta Wauer will be in cinemas in Germany from April 7th. “The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, Moments in History” is a related book in German and English, published by be.bra verlag, Berlin
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Illuminating a master
Mar 1st 2011, 14:33 by P.W. | LONDON
JAN GOSSAERT, a Flemish artist, is credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to the Low Countries. In 1509 he visited Rome, where he glimpsed a considerably different approach to rendering religious and mythological subjects (ie, they were nude). The art he saw there forever changed his own paintings, which in turn influenced his contemporaries at home and changed the course of North European art. 
Today’s non-specialist may have only a fuzzy idea of Gossaert’s pictures. The only recorded major exhibition devoted solely to him was held in Rotterdam and Bruges in the 1960s. Convinced that he is far too important to be neglected, art historians have undertaken new scholarly and technical study of his works. This was led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its curator Maryann Ainsworth. The museum, most unusually, also produced a catalogue raisonné. This has been included in the book that accompanies the exhibition “Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance”, which opened on February 23rd at London’s National Gallery. 
At the Metropolitan, where the show originated, 50 of the artist’s surviving oil paintings on board were displayed with 41 works on paper and related work by other artists. The London show, on until May 30th, has only 37 of the paintings and the 24 Gossaert works on paper. This smaller array proves to be both better and worse, but above all it is markedly different. At the Metropolitan, the visitor walked through what seemed like acres of rooms hung with a sweeping survey of Gossaert, his influences and those he influenced. The more narrow focus in the National Gallery’s cramped exhibition space dramatically increases the impact of Gossaert’s erotic paintings, his most original work.
The six-room display is arranged thematically. It begins by establishing a context for the artist. On view are paintings by Gossaert’s contemporaries, Quintin Massys and Gerard David. There is a portrait of Margaret of Austria, then Hapsburg ruler of the Low Countries. Other rooms are devoted to religious subjects; among them an “Adoration of the Magi” and, at the end of the show, a “Virgin and Child”. Tenderness floods this last room, but there is an undercurrent of dissent. National Gallery scholars label its “Virgin and Child” as a Gossaert original. At the Metropolitan it was described as a copy. (Amusingly, New York and London scholars also disagree about how to spell the artist’s names. At the Metropolitan he is Gossart; in London, Gossaert prevails.)
Gossaert's portraits, which make up more than half his surviving paintings, fill the exhibition’s largest room. While elsewhere walls are painted various shades of green, the portraits are set off by a rich, red background. One of the most memorable is “The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark”, a loan from the Queen’s collection. It is not an image of enviable privilege. These woeful tykes, dressed in black, are mourning their dead mother.
Gossaert’s greatness, though, lies in his unique, imaginative series of erotic paintings and drawings, starting with his “Adam and Eve” series. Gossaert’s technical gifts and subtle understanding of character and emotion shine out in such nudes as his Venus (with and without Cupid) and Hercules and Deianira. (Alas, the astonishing, nearly life-sized “Neptune and Amphitrite” seen in New York is absent here.) These are not idealised, otherworldly creatures. They are individual men and women who look as loving as they are lusting; as filled with warmth as with heat. These are bold, original, compelling and skilfully painted images. Gossaert did not have to be the very best in every genre he undertook to deserve the attention he is now receiving. His nudes alone would make this an impressive, engaging show, well worth seeing.
"Jan Gossaert's Renaissance" is on view at the National Gallery in London through May 30th
Picture credit: National Gallery, "Adam and Eve" (about 1520), lent by Her Majesty The Queen, © Her Majesty The Queen
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Unexpurgated musings without a whitewash
Feb 28th 2011, 20:21 by R.B. | TEXAS
READERS of the recently published "unexpurgated" autobiography of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, are seldom moved to say "Tell us what you really think, Clemens". "Easy does it, old boy" might be more apt. This self-portrait in words was published in late 2010 by the University of California Press to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Twain's death, according to the man's own wishes. "A book that is not to be published for a century," he observed, "gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way." In these pages, he takes advantage of that freedom by skewering sacred cows—the church, Congress, industrialists, Teddy Roosevelt—and, most bitterly, acquaintances he perceived to have wronged him.
Thus the vitriolic character sketch of the Countess Massiglia, the Clemens family's American-born landlady at the Villa Quarto in Florence. He accuses her, essentially, of ruining his life as an expatriate in Italy: "She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward." Given such restraint, Twain was wise to ensure the ants got to him before any new enemies did.
Twain was usually sure of the rightness of his opinions, but on the subject of the Countess they were coloured by especially unfortunate circumstances: his wife Olivia ("Livy") died in the Villa Quarto in 1904. Although her weak heart had long been a concern, Twain partly blamed the meddling Countess Massiglia for her death. Perhaps this explains his invective: he had lost not only his wife but his beloved Florence, too, a place he described as "the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit." Livy's death cast it all in shadow.
Samuel Clemens, born in Missouri in 1835, is so often seen as the quintessential American that we forget how cosmopolitan he became as Mark Twain. He read German, French and Italian, dined with the Kaiser and King Edward VII, and (despite having dropped out of school at age 11) was awarded a Doctor of Letters by Oxford University. But he was a bad businessman. In 1891, after some disastrous investments, he moved his family—Livy and daughters Clara, Susy and Jean—to Florence, which at that time was considerably cheaper than their stateside home of Hartford, Connecticut. Olivia's health was a concern, and the Tuscan climate was fortifying.
For all his no-nonsense Midwestern realism, he was a romantic. And for all his sardonic asides in "The Innocents Abroad", about crumbling buildings and ugly women, he was awestruck by the beauty of Italy. Upon glimpsing Milan Cathedral, he positively gushed. "What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!"
Yet on the same trip, he got up on his Midwestern Protestant hind legs in Rome, which he called "a great fair of shams, humbugs, and frauds." But it was the Catholic Church, not Rome itself, that bothered him. He always reserved his mockery for unthinking worship—of God, of Mammon or Art. In the process he came across as something of a blowhard. Forever warring within him were the down-home scoffer and the world artist, the author of both "Huckleberry Finn" and "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc", which Twain maintained, against all evidence, was his best book ("It is the best; I know it perfectly well"). But at least Joan proved that he was more than a provincial storyteller. He also found fascinating the wider world and distant times.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness," he once wrote, "and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." It is a Romantic view: Goethe or Byron, both of whom also contemplated Italian exile, could have said the same thing. The man who did say it never ceased to relish the sight of new horizons.
"Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1" is out now
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Business as usual
Feb 28th 2011, 14:04 by N.B. | LONDON
THE good news is that the film business seems to be fighting fit. This year’s list of Best Picture nominees for the Academy Awards was charged with so much originality and boldness that we can hope to see more films made by strong-willed directors, rather than timid studio accountants, in the coming months and years. The bad news is that despite that extremely promising shortlist, the Oscars themselves aren’t looking quite so healthy, as evidenced by the last night's glittering Hollywood ceremony.

One sign of their decrepitude was the multiple awards won by “The King’s Speech”. No one would begrudge Colin Firth his Best Actor trophy: as well as putting in a tremendous performance in the film, his acceptance speeches are, time and time again, so gracious and fluent that all future nominees should be sent DVDs of them to study. But the choice of Tom Hooper as Best Director over the likes of David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky, when Christopher Nolan wasn’t even nominated, was a sure indication that the Oscars are as fundamentally conservative and sentimental as they always were.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect anything else from an annual backslapping session built around a ridiculous number of advert breaks. But that indie-friendly Best Picture list did make it seem as if the Academy was finally ready to be a bit more daring. The appointment of two such untried and unexpected presenters as Anne Hathaway and James Franco was encouraging, too. As Ms Hathaway quipped, “It’s the young and hip Oscars!” Initially it seemed as if she was right.

As it turned out, though, she and Mr Franco were depressingly lacklustre. Ms Hathaway did her best to jolly things along, despite being given precious little help by the ceremony’s writers, but Mr Franco was so under-used that for great stretches of the evening you could forget that he was involved. And he seemed to forget as often as anyone: whenever he was onscreen he looked as if his mind was on which pizza he would order after the show.

Maybe he was embarrassed about being associated with such a syrupy spectacle. You could hardly blame him. Tears were shed, endless names were listed—including, in Natalie Portman’s speech, those of the cameramen and make-up artists. An early sequence paid tribute to “Titanic”, of all films. Later, Celine Dion did some crooning over an “In Memoriam” montage. And at the end a choir of New York schoolchildren sang “Over The Rainbow”—to remind us, said Ms Hathaway, “that dreams really do come true”. In the meantime, the cringe-inducing banter was as awkward and unfunny as the attempts at humour at the dispatch box, and the banal introductions to the various categories were like earnest essays written by those New York schoolchildren. On the subject of Sound Mixing, for instance, we learnt, “In the beginning the movies really were silent ... since then, the sky’s becoming the limit.” They should have got Colin Firth to help
with the script.

If the Oscar nominations made you feel well-disposed towards Hollywood again, the Oscar ceremony was enough to put you right off it. And notwithstanding that running gag about the “young and hip Oscars”, it was 94-year-old Kirk Douglas who may have delivered the most refreshingly irreverent moment of the evening. "She's gorgeous!" he quipped, gazing wide-eyed at Ms Hathaway. "Where were you when I was making pictures?"
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The CV: Sherlock Holmes
Feb 25th 2011, 16:54 by Intelligent Life, M.S. | LONDON
The BBC’s hit “Sherlock” is just one of 230 films or television series featuring the great man. Matthew Sweet picks the best...
1891 Illustrations by Sidney Paget    
Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes—but put more energy into trying to kill him off. So perhaps it’s his illustrator who conjured him for us: the lean, feline, frock-coated figure, steepling his fingers in a smoke-wreathed armchair. Paget denied having a model other than the text—but he himself had a long jaw, aquiline nose and high temples. I suspect it was all done with mirrors.
1916 William Gillette
Gillette gave Holmes two things that Conan Doyle failed to supply: a libido and a dirty great curved piece of smoking apparatus. One of them became a fixture, the other remained an act of transgression—as all the critics told Gillette, when he played the great detective in his own stage drama, juiced from Doyle’s short stories. The author, however, was unconcerned. Gillette cabled Doyle across the Atlantic: “May I marry Holmes?” Back came the reply: “Do what you like with him.”
1920s Eille Norwood    
The orthochromatic film stock of the silent days was unforgiving: every crack and fissure in the face of Eille Norwood has been preserved for posterity. With black lips, graveyard demeanour, and his hair shaved at the temples for a cerebral widow’s peak, he played detective in dozens of British two-reelers—the first Holmes with a touch of Transylvania. When he confronts the Hound of the Baskervilles—hand-tinted with a phosphor glow—it’s hard to decide who seems most unearthly.
1939 Basil Rathbone    
Viewers thrown by the 2010 “Sherlock”, take note: Rathbone was the first self-consciously period Holmes, in the dry-iced Victorian world of the Fox backlot. After two films, his bosses felt the Nazis were a more pressing problem and retooled Doyle’s famous speech about the Hun (“such a wind as never blew on England yet”) for Hitler. The delivery is knife-sharp. The cause would not have been more urgent if they had booked Churchill himself.
1959-68 Peter Cushing
When Cushing played Holmes for Hammer, the producer congratulated him for having lost weight for the part—his cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut the pages of the Strand. It was, however, dysentery that did it. In the Hammer “Hound” and in a subsequent series for the BBC, Cushing attacked the part as if relieved not to be playing another psychopath. For a man best known as Frankenstein, he is one of the screen’s least clinical Sherlocks.

1970 Robert Stephens
In the 1970s the intellectuals claimed Holmes. In “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” Nicol Williamson underwent analysis; in “The Private Life of…”, Robert Stephens even talked of a relationship with Watson—albeit as a ploy to avoid having to impregnate a Russian ballerina. Billy Wilder, directing, had Holmes ruled by his heart, not his head. In the character—and the actor, too—it provoked a constitutional crisis.
1980s and 1990s Jeremy Brett
For a performance that’s now regarded as definitive, Brett’s Holmes is a long way from any of his predecessors, and from Conan Doyle. This is Sherlock the addict: twitching, moody, capricious. Watch him in his white nightgown, stretching a colourless hand towards the fags on the mantelpiece—or yelping his way through dinner, veins thrumming with cocaine. Despite this oddness, he’s the Holmes in our heads, and the reason why several more recent ones—Robert Downie Jr, Rupert Everett – seem like pretenders.
2010 Benedict Cumberbatch
With his cantilevered cheekbones, staring eyes and the glaciated attitude of the Ubermensch, Benedict Cumberbatch could have been painted by Munch. We ought to dislike him. But the modern-dress Sherlock, a big hit for the BBC this year and due back soon, is also a sad casualty of his own brilliance. He doesn’t smile much. Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) was never more important as a link between the warm human world and the cold hinterland of when-you-have-eliminated-the-impossible.
"Sherlock" is expected to return on BBC One Autumn 2011.
Picture Credit: BBC
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Minibar for the mind
Feb 25th 2011, 11:04 by More Intelligent Life | LONDON
The School of Life operates out of a smart shop in London’s Bloomsbury, but this is not the place to buy knick-knacks. Rather, this is where to go if all the knick-knacks fail to gratify. Dissatisfied with your high-end job? Wonder where all the time has gone and why your days don’t make sense? Then perhaps it is time for a lesson at the School of Life, where words like “soul”, “mindfulness” and “fulfilment” circulate with sincerity. You might consider attending their “How Necessary is a Relationship” class, or a “sermon” on “being yourself”. There is always a “Bibliotherapy” session, where a “bibliotherapist” will listen to your literary history and prescribe some titles to fill that book-shaped hole in your life.
In January the School of Life launched a partnership with the Morgans Hotel Group, an international luxury chain. This means that a few hotels will experiment with offering “Aphorism Cards” on turned-down beds, and giant “Semi-Automatic” vending machines will peddle School of Life merchandise. (At the St Martin’s Lane hotel in London, the machine sells soaps shaped like baby-hands, and dinner with philosopher Alain de Botton—the latter for £5,000, including a bottle of wine.) Hotels will host affiliated lectures, and something called a “Minibar for the Mind” (£35) will be available in rooms. Meant to replace the usual dusty nibbles and doll-sized bottles of booze, these in-room minibars contain a box of conversation starters, a book of “Collected Thoughts”, two reading prescriptions, a “Dreams and Fears” notebook and some pencils.
Visually, there is an affinity between the two businesses. Both the School of Life and the Morgans hotels pride themselves on their quirky aesthetic. For the former, this tends to mean vintage typefaces and off-key colours (bitter yellow, sage green); for the latter, such ingenuity takes the shape of unique furnishings, like a three-legged Dali-inspired chair (the texture of melted wax, with high heels for feet) and a truculent row of molar-shaped stools in the lobby of the St Martin’s Lane hotel.
But stylish presentation can’t conceal the whiff of gimmick. At swanky Morgans outposts, the School of Life appears little more than a marketing bauble. I’m told it is “something a bit different for customers” and the group routinely “pursues partnerships with innovative brands”. What is it that has attracted the School of Life? Key draws must be exposure, and, of course, money. If the partnership is a success it will be reproduced throughout the chain—a greater reach than might be achieved from Bloomsbury. Morgwn Rimel, the director of the School of Life couches this more obliquely​—​“access to a different audience.”
But in the act of reaching out to grasp such heady treasures the School of Life may have accidentally kicked away their own mounting block. Doesn’t selling dinkily-packaged products in a high-end luxury hotel’s vending machine indicate that they have looped so far off-message that they are now a part of the very problem they set out to solve? Perhaps not. The truth is that the School of Life is plainly a high-end brand. The people who attend classes on such nonessentials as "how to find a job you love" are unlikely to be found on the breadline. This kind of introspection is a luxury. It requires leisure time and disposable income in large enough quantities to have become either disillusioned or bored enough to wander the gnarled alleyway of existentialism. In choosing to ally themselves with Morgans, the School of Life has shrewdly gained access to exactly those people most inclined to exchange cash for the promise of fulfilment.
Does this mean that the School of Life has lost its currency? I hope not. At bottom it is a novel idea, and it’s a trendier and more sociable way to find a more meaningful life than, say, sitting down and reading the acres of books that touch on the subject. Besides, Morgwn seemed charmingly genuine when she told me that they enjoyed creating the products. They are, as promised “playful and unexpected”.
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Reading material
Feb 23rd 2011, 17:25 by The Economist online
The mystery of King George VI's stutter
(Slate): "'The King's Speech' raises more questions about stuttering than it answers"
Pip in Calcutta
(Independent): A new production of Dickens's "Great Expectations" is set in 19th-century India
That enigmatic smile
(Guardian): The identity of the "Mona Lisa" is known, yet speculation continues
Today's quote:
“It’s as if you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”
~ Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, on the information age, as quoted in, "How We Know" (New York Review of Books)
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And the Oscar should go to...
Feb 23rd 2011, 10:32 by More Intelligent Life, N.B. | LONDON
I’M NOT a gambling man, but I’d put money on this year’s Best Picture Oscar going to a film with a three-word title, the first word being “The”. I’d also bet on “127 Hours”, “The Kids Are All Right”, “The Fighter”, and “Winter’s Bone” not winning. As nice as it is to see them acknowledged, the policy introduced by the Academy last year of having ten films in the Best Picture category means, inevitably, that several of them are there to make up the numbers. And at the moment what we have is a very exciting, very close two-horse race.

In all the award shows preceding the Oscars—ceremonies which are now seen primarily as part of the Oscar build-up, rather than institutions in their own right—“The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” have been way ahead of all the other runners and riders. For most of the way, “The Social Network” led the field, named Best Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Film by most of the critics organisations. But “The King’s Speech” swept the boards at the Baftas, which has added to a feeling that it’s edged ahead. As I write, “The King’s Speech” is the favourite. Of course, that phenomenal Bafta triumph may have done it more harm than good. Some Oscar voters might feel that if the Brits supported their homegrown product so unashamedly, then the Yanks should throw their support behind the American contender.

Ultimately, though, the choice between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” isn’t between a British film and an American one, but between a reassuring film and an unsettling one. As excellent as “The King’s Speech” is, it tells us that things were better in the olden days when everyone knew their place, and when a stiff upper lip was all it took to win a war against the Nazis. There are chilling moments—Bertie’s stories of his abused childhood, David’s sneering at his younger brother—but they lead us to the comforting conclusion that love and friendship conquer all, disabilities can be overcome, and, as long as you believe in yourself, good will prevail over evil.

“The Social Network” is another matter. It offers more questions than answers, leaving us to debate which of its characters are heroes and which are villains, who’s been exploited and who’s done the exploiting. It makes some viewers want to log straight onto Facebook, and others vow never to Update their Status again. And it doesn’t let us relax, as “The King’s Speech” does, by being set 60-odd years ago in the art-deco past. It’s a film about now.

The Academy’s voters have to choose, then, between a typically Oscar-type film—middlebrow and unchallenging, for all its shining virtues—and one which takes risks. For my money, the other eight nominees, lest we forget that they’re still in contention, are broadly conventional, too. I’m a fan of almost all of them, but if any film other than “The Social Network” wins, it’ll be a cop-out.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Colin Firth in the Best Actor category, though.
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"Waste Land"
Feb 23rd 2011, 0:01 by The Economist online
The director of "Waste Land", a film about Brazilians who pick recyclables from garbage and the art they create, on finding her subjects
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Reading material
Feb 22nd 2011, 10:49 by The Economist online
The science of play
(Chronicle of Higher Education): "Play supposedly improves working memory and self-regulation" 
White men with instruments
(San Francisco Chronicle): Sexual and racial discrimination in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written in the borders
(New York Times): Marginalia, "regarded as a tool of literary archaeology...has an uncertain fate in a digitalized world"
Today's quote:
“But there's no shame in losing to silicon, I thought to myself...After all, I don't have 2,880 processor cores and 15 terabytes of reference works at my disposal—nor can I buzz in with perfect timing whenever I know an answer. My puny human brain, just a few bucks worth of water, salts, and proteins, hung in there just fine against a jillion-dollar supercomputer”
~ Ken Jennings, on playing Jeopardy! against the machine, "My Puny Human Brain" (Slate)
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The joy of "Angry Birds"
Feb 21st 2011, 17:12 by Intelligent Life, T.S. | LONDON
IT'S not a complicated game, and it doesn’t embody any clever new technology. But it’s great fun, has astonishingly broad appeal and manages to encapsulate the current state of gaming in a squawking, pocket-sized bundle. It is, of course, “Angry Birds”.
The chances are that you have either played it, or seen someone else playing it or been invited to play it. But if not, the basic idea is that you use your mobile phone touch-screen to lob a preordained series of coloured birds, one after another, towards precarious buildings containing one or more circular green pigs. There is some kind of plot that explains all this, but nobody I know has ever bothered to pay attention to it, because that would delay the arrival of the next level.
The idea is to kill all the pigs by getting things to fall on them, knocking them to the ground or blowing them up (the colour-coded birds have different abilities). This usually requires multiple attempts as you try different demolition strategies. Once you’ve finished a level, another slightly harder one appears, and another, and another. It is life-stealingly addictive and hugely popular: about 30m copies of the game have been downloaded in the past year. But “Angry Birds” is more than just another mobile-phone game. It epitomises gaming in 2010 in three ways. First, it can be enjoyed by people of all ages, and by both casual and hardcore gamers. Each attempt at a level takes just a few seconds, which is great when you’re standing in a queue or on a train platform. But it can be played for hours on end. It’s simple enough to pick up quickly, yet also has depth and replay value for the more obsessive gamer. This is a circle that game publishers everywhere are suddenly trying to square.
Secondly, it runs on a phone, rather than a console. Games have become a key selling point for smartphones. Microsoft recently got into trouble when it implied that “Angry Birds” was on its way for phones powered by its Windows Mobile 7 software. It isn’t. But who wants a phone without “Angry Birds”?
Finally, this is the perfect game for the age of austerity. It’s either free (on Android phones) or a couple of pounds (on others), yet it provides as many hours of gameplay as a full-scale console game costing 15 times as much. The British prime minister, David Cameron, is among its fans; depending on your political views, this either indicates his dedication to cost-cutting—or, as the birds and pigs battle it out, mirrors the way spending cuts will pit Britons against each other.
Rovio, the Finnish developer behind “Angry Birds”, is rushing out a range of tie-in cuddly toys for Christmas. Which sounds like game over. The search is on for the next breakout hit.
Angry Birds is available on Apple iOS devices, Android phones, Palm webOS devices and high-end Nokia smartphones
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The Q&A: Retna, artist
Feb 21st 2011, 11:45 by More Intelligent Life | NEW YORK
AT FIRST glance, the work of the artist Retna looks like an undiscovered ancient script: a series of hypnotic symbols—complex, beautiful and captivating. But Retna has created an original alphabet, fusing together influences from ancient Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic, Hebrew, Asian calligraphy, and graffiti. Each piece carries meaning, conveying an event or dialogue that the artist experienced.
As a youth of African-American, El Salvadorian and Cherokee descent growing up in Los Angeles, Retna (real name Marquis Lewis) was mesmerized by the gang graffiti that surrounded him. He began practicing the art form, and adopted the name Retna from a Wu-Tang Clan song. In the mid-nineties he began making murals on walls, trains and freeway overpasses throughout the city.
Retna has transformed from a street artist to a break-out star in the contemporary art world. He has garnered attention from Usher, an R&B artist, who commissioned the artist to create a portrait of Marvin Gaye, and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who wrote in the September 2010 issue of Juxtapoz “one of the most exciting exhibitions...this year, anywhere, was Retna’s exhibition at New Image Art.” This spring, MOCA will feature Retna's work in the “Art in the Streets” exhibit.
On February 10th, Retna opened his first solo show in New York, “The Hallelujah World Tour”, presented by Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, in conjunction with New York City's Fashion Week. The tour will continue with exhibitions in London and Venice. Retna spoke with More Intelligent Life about his script, growing up in L.A. and graffiti.
 
How did growing up in Los Angeles affect your work?
The people that I met, the neighborhood guys, the fascination with graffiti and things that weren’t always seen as a good thing. It was illegal for the most part, what it was that we were doing. It’s influenced in my work. Everything represents a very strong L.A. influence. 
Were you ever in a gang?
I think I had asked to join the neighborhood guys, and they were like 'Marquis there’s nothing here for you, you can come hang out with us, we’ll let you paint on our walls but you don’t have to be a part of us'. And I owe them a lot for that for letting me pursue my own dream.
Do you still write on the streets?
I haven’t been as active as I want to be. I’ve done murals, but I haven’t been active in that area. It’s been a while, maybe like two years, but I’ve been really busy.
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The market sprawls
Feb 18th 2011, 23:01 by S.T. | LONDON
YOU don’t usually hear loud orgasmic moans during an art auction. But on February 15th at Sotheby’s in London five activists interrupted the sale of a painting by Andy Warhol to protest against the British government’s proposed funding cuts. The young people, inspired by performance art, began their gig with groans and then unfolded a large red banner that declared the sale an "Orgy of the Rich."
The drama brought home the dizzying disconnection that exists between Europe’s morose economies and the vibrant art market. Indeed, the prestigious evening sales of contemporary art, when the auction houses offer their most expensive goods, were bullish. Christie’s brought in £61.4m ($98.9m), the third highest total for a February sale in London; Sotheby’s £44.4m. When combined with the results of a single-owner sale called “Looking Closely”, which had been held the previous week, Sotheby’s total for its post-war art auctions fetched £88m, the second highest February total ever.
It seemed as if the boom was back.
But the art markets of 2007 and 2011 are very different. Nicolai Frahm, who speculates on contemporary art, sees the market as more selective now. “Artists come in and out of fashion very fast,” he says, “making it very difficult to predict what will happen.” Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art Europe, explains: “What defined the boom for me is that you could buy one season, sell the next and make a profit. Things are different now. High prices are being achieved but you can’t turn the work around so quickly.”
Another change that has taken place over the past four years is that art buying is more global than it ever was. In the past, a handful of artists such as Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter have had deep markets that have spanned continents. Their long-standing international appeal is the main reason why these two names are still in the headlines. Mr Richter’s 1990 work, “Abstraktes Bild” (pictured above), achieved the highest price realised at Sotheby’s. It was bought by Patty Wong, the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, for a client at £7.2m. And Warhol’s 1967 “Self-Portrait” (pictured right) was the top lot at Christie’s, purchased for £10.8m by an American dealer, Larry Gagosian.
Warhol is usually perceived to have the broader collector base, but Mr Richter enjoyed more multinational demand this week. During Sotheby’s evening sale, collectors from seven countries bid on three Richters, whereas buyers from five countries bid on five Warhols. Similarly, at Christie’s, clients from nine countries were registered to bid on Richters, with collectors from only five countries taking aim at Warhols.
Today, many more artists have international careers than even a few years ago. At Christie’s, on February 16th, 11 telephone bidders from eight countries competed to acquire Yan Pei-Ming’s painting of Mao Zedong. Francis Outred, Christie’s European head of post-war and contemporary art, explains that the shift is “part of a broader discussion about how art collectors start with their own, then go international.”
Although the breakdown of Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary sales look similar at first glance, with 51-53% of the lots staying in Europe and 9-11% going to Asia, Sotheby’s buyers came from 12 countries and Christie’s from an impressive 21. They offered a comparable number of lots. So why the disparity?
A close look at the nationalities of the artists featured in the auctions offers one explanation. The only artist from an emerging economic region in Sotheby’s sale was Ai Weiwei from China, whereas Christie’s included Adriana Varejao (Brazil), Bharti Kher (India), Almed Alsoudani (Iraq), and Yan Pei-Ming (China). A wider variety of artists invites a broader range of buyers.
Ms Varejao’s “Wall with Incisions a la Fontana II” (pictured right) enjoyed a spectacular success at Christie’s. Consigned by a Portuguese collector who bought it from London’s Victoria Miro Gallery in 2002 for £20,000, the painting made £1.1m, the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living South American woman, driven primarily by Latin American bidding. South American interest in Ms Varejao’s work may also have had the benefit of spilling over into other parts of the sale, encouraging bidding from the region on works by Cindy Sherman and Eduardo Chillida. Once a bidder is registered, the temptation to take a punt on another lot can be hard to resist.
But not all artists are supported by their countrymen. Although Ai Weiwei is based in Beijing, his work has not been avidly collected in China where he is regarded as politically sensitive and too avant-garde. An active democracy campaigner, his art has mostly found homes in Europe and America. At Sotheby’s, Mr Ai’s 100kg of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds (pictured here), a domestic echo of the artist’s monumental installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, sold for €417,004 ($568,250) to an anonymous buyer on the phone to Gregoire Billault, a contemporary specialist based in Paris. The artist’s first sunflower piece, which weighed 500kg, was sold by Faurschou Gallery (of Beijing and Copenhagen) for €350,000 in 2009. That price indicates that, in less than two years, Mr Ai’s sunflower seeds have gone from €700 to €4170 per kilo—a sixfold increase. Sometimes, it makes sense to buy early and in bulk.
No discussion of the globality of the contemporary art market is complete without mentioning Damien Hirst. Sotheby’s evening sale contained no examples of his work, but Christie’s put three Hirsts on the block, including a pristine 1994 spot painting (pictured here), which realised £881,250. More than two years after “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, the Sotheby’s sale that nearly suffocated the second-hand trade in Mr Hirst’s work, this price was wholesome enough that one commentator, Judd Tully, declared that the artist’s market was in “rehab condition”. Gagosian Gallery will be sure to have noticed. It is apparently preparing an international retrospective of Mr Hirst’s spot paintings with shows in every one of its locations—Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Athens, Moscow and Hong Kong, to name a few. The exhibitions are said to be scheduled for January 2012, by which time the aspirations of contemporary collectors will no doubt be even more groovily global.
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Rocking Africa
Feb 18th 2011, 15:57 by Intelligent Life, J.L. | NAIROBI
ONE of the pleasures of being a foreign correspondent in Africa is loading up the iPod for a road trip. Raucous works well in a Land Cruiser banging around the scrublands, especially since I lost the hearing in one ear to machinegun fire in Afghanistan. Buoyant helps in negotiating cities by day. Classic and subtle is best after an equatorial clockwork sunset.

GETATCHEW MEKURIA AND THE EX  Musicawi Silt  from the album Moa Anbessa (download from Beemp3)
Roll down the windows, hit the pedal and damn the potholes. Mixing Mekuria’s Ethiopian jazz with The Ex’s Dutch anarchist punk, this track is a burst of sunshine when you’re driving.
GUACHASS  Dirty Harry (Amazon)
In Congo, the Uruguayan peacekeepers turned the dial to 11 for these Montevideo punk rockers. Ramones clones are not usually my thing, but it worked with steak, booze, guns and beetles whirring about the campfire.

TABU LEY ROCHEREAU  Sorozo (iTunes)
From Congo comes the one and only, the top cat, Tabu Ley Rochereau, whose early live recordings lure you back through the decades. He was among the first to add Brazilian and Cuban rhythms to Congolese music. This track, recorded with Orchestre Afrisa, puts a smile on the morning.

SIGUR ROS  Untitled # 4  from () (iTunes)
I once had to take Jonsi Birgisson out on the town in Prague. He was a gentleman whirlwind. As lead singer of Sigur Ros (above), he is also one of the few Icelanders still solvent. This track is pure accelerant, and an Economist writer can hardly complain about its anonymity.
FELA KUTI  Zombie  from Zombie (iTunes)
Nigeria is coming to dominate African pop—often with dross. All the more reason to listen to Fela Kuti, the Yoruba giant who died in 1997 and whose Afrobeat is ever more revered. This track from 1976 has become iconic: think James Brown with even bigger appetites and a conscience.
VIA AFRIKA  Hey Boy  from Via Afrika (iTunes)
Out of South Africa, in 1983, came a white pop-punk band that broke the mould. This is a contagious hit, just waiting for the bubblegum revival.

ROKIA TRAORE  M’Bifo  from Bowmboi (Amazon)
I saw Rokia play in Bamako and was entranced. The child of Malian diplomats, she adds singer-songwriter influences to the clarity of the traditional music. This live take, recorded in Italy, is slow and intense.

MAGDALENA KOZENA  Nadeje (Hope)  from Songs My Mother Taught Me (iTunes)
Many of Africa’s conservatoires have closed. Outside South Africa, classical music is restricted to church, alas. Everyone needs a diva and mine is the Czech soprano Magdalena Kozena. With Kozena at the piano, giving her rich and subtle take on Martinu, you can picture yourself in a conservatoire – or a conservatory, in high summer, with the windows open to the lawns.
Picture Credit: Pennello (via Flickr).
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Haven't they noticed there's a recession on?
Feb 18th 2011, 0:46 by T.N.
I hardly read Irish writers any more, I've been disappointed so often... The older, more sophisticated Irish writers that want to be Nabokov give me the yellow squirts and a scaldy hole. If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties. Reading award-winning Irish literary fiction, you wouldn't know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity (or "the new Mechanikal Galvinism" as they like to call it).
IT'S tempting to quote all 1,800 words of Julian Gough's (year-old) answer to a mild-mannered question put to him about contemporary Irish fiction by his publisher. But then you'd miss his equally entertaining, and provocative, responses to questions on translation, European fiction and publishing in Ireland. So head over to his site and read the whole thing. (Mr Gough is an Irish writer himself, though lives in Berlin.)
I don't read enough Irish fiction to know if Mr Gough's claims are true. But during a recent trip to Ireland to research a piece on the country's mood after the crash and EU/IMF bail-out, I was struck by what little impact Ireland's boom and subsequent bust seemed to have had on the domestic arts.
This, remember, was a truly extraordinary story. The plot follows a satisfying rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative arc, with enough hubris and nemesis to satisfy the most demanding classicist. The cast of characters is superlative, featuring buccaneering bankers, outsized politicians and all-conquering property developers (plus a few poor Cassandras). Even the locations are enticing, from rural beauty spots blighted by "ghost estates" to high-end networking jamborees masquerading as racing events.
You'd expect this sorry tale to have generated a wave of films, plays and novels. After all, the Irish have never shied away from telling stories about themselves. Visual artists must have hit upon a new mode of expression. Musicians, surely, would have found a way to express the story through song, as they have done with so many of Ireland's historical traumas. Hell, this story could make an opera.
But there is little sign of an artistic response to Ireland's crash. In Dublin, I saw a production of John B Keane's "The Field", a 1965 play about a land dispute in south-west Ireland. (It was excellent; readers who happen to find themselves in County Mayo between Tuesday and Thursday next week should check it out).
The play was about a very different time in Irish history, but a few lines happened to resonate with more recent events—"There's a craze for land everywhere!", for instance. These invariably drew hearty chuckles from the audience, suggesting an appetite for some kind of dramatic interpretation of the Celtic Tiger years. But one of the producers told me that they had decided to re-stage the play before Ireland came bumping down to earth; the fact that parts of the script now sounded like a description of recent years was a (happy) coincidence.
That was about it. I spotted no exhibitions devoted to depictions of the new misery wrought on Irish lives, heard no songs expressing the anxiety and uncertainty that is so palpable in the country at large. I spent one delightful night in a small-town pub surrounded by enthusiastically warbling songsters and songstresses, but their repertoire did not seem to extend to anything more recent than the Easter Rising. (Although I am told that YouTube is dripping with home-made "bail-out songs".) An admittedly cursory scan through the programme of the Irish Film Festival, which began yesterday, throws up work devoted to the war in Croatia and ethnic tensions in Burma, but little on the drama at home. (Readers will no doubt be kind enough to point me in the direction of any works that have escaped my notice.)
As for novels, the journey from conception to publication can be long, often longer than the two-and-a-bit years since the Irish government decided to guarantee the debts of the country's rapidly collapsing banks, the first big sign that Ireland's landing was not going to be soft. So perhaps we can expect a wave of recession-lit in the coming years. Anne Enright (pictured), author of the Booker-winning "The Gathering", told me that her next novel is set in February 2009, a strange, limbo time when nobody realised how quickly the country was falling into recession.
But I'm not sure. Ireland has had the best part of 20 years to produce a novel that captured the exciting, sometimes frenzied mood of a country undergoing momentous economic and social change. If it's been written, people don't appear to have bought it. Much of the Irish literature that has populated the bookshops and the bestseller lists in that time has been of the Frank McCourt-style "misery memoir" type: sorry autobiographical or semi-autobiographical tales of poverty, domestic violence and abuse of various licit or illicit substances.
Why might this be? Ireland is certainly not lacking a distinguished literary history. In "Ship of Fools", his polemical response to Ireland's crash and the people that caused it, Fintan O'Toole, a well-known Irish journalist and critic, suggests that Ireland lacked the tradition of forensic social realism needed to deal with a chaotic period like the years of the Celtic Tiger. When I put this to Ms Enright, she agreed, sort of, but suggested that this was a natural consequence of Ireland's history, specifically the fact that it never underwent a genuine industrial revolution. "We can't produce a George Eliot any more than we can a steam railway," she said.
Kevin Barry, another author I met, told me that Irish literature was "weirdly retrospective". This may, he suggested, have something to do with the fact that Ireland in effect "skipped the 20th century"—it transformed itself from a poor, largely agricultural economy into a high-tech export-intensive powerhouse in less than a generation. Mr Barry said he was "not rubbing his hands with glee" at the prospect of the epic Irish social novel. His soon-to-be published debut novel, "City of Bohane", is a "Clockwork Orange"-style dystopia set in a fictional Irish town in 2054. (If it's half as good as his New Yorker short story from last year, it'll be worth reading.)
Mr O'Toole also draws attention to a couple of crime novels, "small masterpieces" he says do a good job of depicting Ireland's "globalised culture". In that vein I should mention that a couple of friends have recommended Alan Glynn's "Winterland" as painting an accurate portrait of the seamy side of Ireland's boom.
One more thought. Although Ireland's top-flight novelists have tended not to tackle the big story of their country's recent history in their fiction—at least not directly—they have proved willing to express their thoughts in other media. Ms Enright has taken to the pages of the London Review of Books to describe, compellingly, the recession. After last November's bail-out, amid much talk about Ireland's humiliating loss of sovereignty Colm Tóibin provided British radio listeners with three minutes of wisdom and common sense. A week earlier John Banville, another Booker winner, struck a slightly more melancholy tone in the New York Times.
I may be wrong, but I'm not sure that there are many other countries which outsiders would turn to novelists to explain. It helps, of course, that the Irish speak English. But were Australia's economy to collapse, or Canada's banks to buckle (unlikely, I know), I don't imagine newspaper editors would solicit op-eds from Tim Winton or Alice Munro. Readers can correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall major cultural figures from Greece or Portugal cropping up in mainstream media outlets to describe their countries' respective woes.
Why might this be? I think there may be supply and demand reasons. On the supply side, Ireland is a small, proud country with a long history of telling its story to the world. It has treated its literary children well; perhaps they are considered to have earned their place as narrators and so feel confident about acting out that role on the international stage. (This, of course, makes the absence of fictional responses to the crash even odder.) On the demand side, many of us hold tight to outdated notions of Ireland as a romantic sort of place that only the artist can really understand. Even in the form of newspaper articles, the novelist's response, we suspect, will take us beyond the deathly analyses of economists and historians and uncover the true soul of the place.
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We're all street artists now
Feb 17th 2011, 16:54 by More Intelligent Life | LONDON
IN LONDON, you can take classes on how to make graffiti. On weekends, street artist Andy Seize gives graffiti lessons to children and adults who pay between £35 and £150 per session. Since he works in pre-approved spaces, Seize doesn't have to worry about London's active graffiti clean-up crews.
"[Graffiti] will always have people who prefer to paint trains, tubes, buses and motorway's illegally," says Seize, a self-taught graffiti artist who got his start when he was 15. "You can call it vandalism, but some people regard it as leaving their tag or image for all to see. Graffiti is freedom." Seize did not seem to find anything counterintuitive in teaching paying customers how to grasp this expressive, rule-flouting freedom for themselves.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, an inconspicuous pop-up shop filled with street art was open for business on Berwick Street in London's Soho. Original Banksy pieces were on display alongside works by Dran, Ian Stevenson, Mark Sinckler, Paul Insect and Doodle Earth. Pictures on Walls (POW), the East London collective that runs the annual pop-up shop, called it "Marks & Stencils" (a riff on the British chain Marks & Spencer).
There is something odd about seeing street art corralled for purchase. Half the fun is stumbling upon it somewhere unexpected. But the atmosphere was cool, and the shop sold works I had never seen, from artists I had never heard of. Some pieces looked as if they had been thrown together in 30 minutes; others were more thoughtful, using irony, sarcasm and wit to level a social critique. Visitors could also design their own postcards. I hung out for a while, and there was a steady stream of people around me. One visitor, a 40-something Adidas-tracksuited man, bashfully discussed his own stencilling ideas. He was told to get started: "before you know it, you could have a following," said someone working in the shop. This much was clear: if POW didn't open it, some other enterprising entrepreneur surely would have.
Following the second world war, "the first youth culture was music and fashion," said Sam, a spokesman for POW. (He declined to give his surname owing to his "general mistrust of the media".) "But then you saw graffiti start popping up in New York and Philly, and now it's resulted in Christie's and Bonhams having fucking auctions of this stuff. That's a summary of the last 30 years, and that's wonderful."
Whether or not it's wonderful, it's certainly true. Fans have purchased pieces by Banksy, perhaps the most notorious (and still anonymous) street artist, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Indeed, his critically acclaimed documentary, "Exit Through the Gift Shop", considers this odd mix of art, hype and commerce. It is now up for an Oscar. In anticipation of the Academy Awards on February 27th—where countless street art fans hope Banksy will make an appearance—at least one new (alleged) Banksy piece popped up recently in West Los Angeles. The piece (above) depicts a young boy aiming a large machine gun at a "No Parking" sign, surrounded by crayon drawings of flowers.
The mainstreaming of graffiti art says something about the rise-and mass appropriation of—youth culture. Companies that sell goods for street-savvy, skater-punking youth, such as Volcom, Vans and Zumiez, have all made it onto Forbes' Best Small Companies list in recent years. Professional skateboarder Tony Hawk's brand, which includes skateboards, clothing, and PlayStation skateboarding video games, is reportedly valued at more than $1 billion, and his clothing line is available at Kohl's.
"I really don't think about street art being mainstream or whatever," said Sam, from POW. "It's wonderful that this has happened. Kids who haven't gone to art school are now supporting their families."
Picture Credit: Stephen Dickter (via Flickr)
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Reading material
Feb 17th 2011, 15:32 by The Economist online
At £3.50 a seed
(New York Times): Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s works “Sunflower Seeds’’ sold at Sotheby’s in London Tuesday evening for £349,250
Angry Birds vs Halo
(Wired): Mobile games endanger the console gaming industry
Man Asian prize will reward published work
(Wall Street Journal): “As we sat down and thought about it, we came to realize that, in fact, the Man Booker format of dealing with published novels is a lot better”
Today's quote:
“If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable. ”
~ Martin Amis, "Martin Amis claims only a 'serious brain injury' could make him write children's literature" (Telegraph)
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A different kind of diva in Covent Garden
Feb 17th 2011, 12:23 by More Intelligent Life | LONDON
THE news that Mark-Anthony Turnage is to unveil an opera based on the mysterious life and death of the American actress and sex-symbol Anna Nicole Smith comes as a typical surprise. Turnage is a slow-burning composer, and never predictable. His first opera, “Greek” (1988), set the raw violence and black comedy of a Steven Berkoff play excoriating Mrs Thatcher’s Britain to music which was both caustic and beguiling. His second turned Sean O’Casey’s first-world-war tragedy “The Silver Tassie” into that rare thing, a contemporary opera with the durability of a classic.
Reared in Essex on a mixed diet of Bach, Mozart and black American fusion, Turnage claims that he started composing “by distorting other people’s music out of boredom”, and he has stayed faithful to his roots, with a love of jazz—most often Miles Davis—infusing almost everything he writes for the concert hall. The death from drugs of his younger brother inspired “Blood on the Floor”, a tender elegy for guitar, strings and muted trumpets, and Francis Bacon’s paintings were the explosive trigger for the densely allusive “Three Screaming Popes”. Turnage’s music can be relied on to be brightly coloured, intricate and contain a wealth of suggestion. With Richard Thomas—co-creator of “Jerry Springer: The Opera”—as its librettist, and the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, this new opera may well push out the frontiers of the art form.
"Anna Nicole" Royal Opera House, London WC2, from February 17th
Picture Credit: Sittered (via Flickr)
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The drama of climate change
Feb 16th 2011, 18:54 by The Economist online
WHERE are the good plays about climate change? At More Intelligent Life Robert Butler writes about two plays on the subject that opened in London recently: "Greenland" (pictured top), at the National Theatre, got panned, and "The Heretic", at the Royal Court, got raves. If you go and see both, you could come away fairly confused about climate science.
Highly divisive issues have generated some important plays: think of McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible", or AIDS and Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America", or political correctness and David Mamet’s "Oleanna". Yet 20 years after the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and five years after "An Inconvenient Truth", no major playwright had written a play about the subject. Many reasons have been suggested for this. The science is complex. The links between cause and effect (on which plays depend) are hard to show. Arts organisations get sponsorship from Big Oil. And everyone has made up their mind anyway...Jim Thompson, author of "The Grifters", once wrote there are 32 ways to write a story (and he had used every one of them), but there is only one plot: "Things are not what they seem." The problem with climate change is that the scientific consensus is a bit of a bore. It just doesn't catch our imagination. As an audience, we are naturally drawn to deception and mystery, the half-hidden and the shadows. The theatre may be the one place where we hope our trust in authority figures will prove to be misplaced. The authors of "Greenland" might have had more fun if they had concentrated on the smooth and powerful authority figures who deny the science, rather than the earnest folks who fret over it. That's where the action is. As David Mamet told an interviewer, "Drama is basically about lies, somebody lying to somebody." It's the impulse audiences had in Ancient Greece, when characters were portrayed with masks. Whichever way you tell the story, we want to see the mask slip.
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I wanted the work to say "whoah"
Feb 16th 2011, 15:44 by S.T. | SAO PAULO
“ART digs a black hole in the world,” says Nuno Ramos, an artist and poet celebrated in Brazil but little known outside the country. Sitting in the front room of his São Paulo home, with his wife and two of his three grown-up sons, Mr Ramos is conducting a masterful rant. The main purpose of art, he declares, is to insert “ambiguity into a world that has become directional and monotonous,” and to raise universal questions despite people's overwhelming interest in “sharp little particularities.” Whether it is politicised or not, art should still be “an oxygenation of our imagination.”
Mr Ramos’s installation “White Flag” was the centrepiece of the recent São Paulo biennial. A sinister work consisting of three giant conical mounds made of black sand and marble, it featured loudspeakers that emit a dim hum of samba music and three live vultures in a mesh cage (see slideshow). The birds would stand still for long stretches, resembling their taxidermy cousins, then startle spectators by taking flight. As Mr Ramos explains, “the building [designed by Oscar Niemeyer] is so beautiful, optimistic, and speedy... I wanted the work to say 'whoah'.”
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Adrian Tomine gets happy
Feb 15th 2011, 23:03 by More Intelligent Life | NEW YORK
ADRIAN TOMINE, a Brooklyn-based cartoonist, is something of a poster boy for a certain kind of carefully studied mopery. His spare, elegant lines bear the influence of such comics greats as Dan Clowes ("Ghost World") and Jaime Hernandez ("Love and Rockets"). But his dialogue and stories skew more Woody Allen, if Woody Allen were a young Asian guy from the West Coast.
His highly regarded comic book "Optic Nerve" began life as a mini-comic in 1991 when Tomine, who is Japanese American, was still in high school in Sacramento. It was picked up in 1995 by Drawn + Quarterly, a Montreal-based comics publisher, and Tomine remains with the outfit today. "Optic Nerve" was most recently collected and released as the graphic novel “Shortcomings” (2009), which found Tomine’s protagonist and possible alter-ego Ben Tanaka navigating the fraught territory of romance, desire and identity with his girlfriend, Miko. Ben’s fondness for the white ladies spins the couple out into the kind of conflict at which Tomine excels, his sharp ear for dialogue limning both the political and the highly personal.
Those not initiated into the comics scene might recognise Tomine’s work from the New Yorker, where his clean, stylish drawings and muted colour palette grace the cover from time to time. His covers carry a strain of his usual melancholy, but the mute, single-panel format tempers it into something more like wistfulness. Still, Tomine’s figures seem to be strangers to happiness, or even contentment, which is why his latest offering, "Scenes From an Impending Marriage", comes as such a nice surprise.
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The black dog
Feb 15th 2011, 17:51 by More Intelligent Life | PORTLAND
THE black dog. Just where did Winston Churchill get his famous metaphor for depression? From Arthur Conan Doyle and his diabolical Baskerville hound? Or perhaps from Samuel Johnson, who in 1783 wrote, "when I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking."
What about "Beowulf"?

Whatever its origins, Churchill's black dog quickly went from being a private quip to a cliché: stranded, toothless and damp. Rebecca Hunt, an artist and writer based in London, explores the comic possibilities of the metaphor's lost snarl in her debut novel, "Mr Chartwell". The book introduces us to Black Pat, "a mammoth muscular dog about six foot seven high" who happens to be the physical embodiment of depression. Oh, and he talks. When we meet Pat, he is lurking at Churchill's bedside, as we might expect. "Bugger off," Churchill barks back, with a weariness that tells us this is an act they've played for years.

But Pat thinks he has more to offer than quiet foreboding. He wishes to make ths plain to a recently widowed librarian named Esther. As charming as Pat turns out to be (drollery is his chief tactic), neither Churchill nor Esther are moved by his overtures. This odd triangle of characters—awkward, sympathetic and strange—is the crux of the novel's humour.
Fear emerges as the story's first antagonist: fear of another grey day; fear of being bitten; and fear of having to explain that Churchill's black dog is in fact a black dog. Timidity has heightened Ms Hunt's sensual world. She describes the sights, sounds and smells of every little shift in Esther and Pat's dynamic. And for all the darkness, she injects plenty of light: Esther's kitchen fills with "luminous gloom", Pat "records specks of phosphorescence in the blank screen of Esther's deliberation."

Though the situations are clear and the imagery crisp, Ms Hunt gives us a lot of room for imaginative play. The author's gift for casual, domesticated suspense recalls Muriel Spark, and her whimsy reads like a young and chaste Nicholson Baker. Though the book's tone is often frivolous, its central image, Black Pat and the melancholy he personifies, lingers with us like a metaphor rejuvenated.
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Valentine's Day in Ramallah
Feb 14th 2011, 16:46 by L.O. | RAMALLAH
RAMALLAH, the de facto capital city of the West Bank, has been festooned in red and white for nearly a week. Palestinians are busy celebrating two seemingly incongruous occasions: the revolution in Egypt and Valentine's Day.
When news of Hosni Mubarak's resignation broke last Friday evening, hundreds of men, women and children gathered in Ramallah's central square to cheer on their neighbours, waving red, white and black Egyptian flags. Amid singing, dancing and the occasional home-made fireworks display, the crowds chanted slogans denouncing President Barack Obama and American interference in the Middle East politics, and called for an end to dictatorships throughout the region.
Like much of the Arab world, Palestinians in the West Bank appear to be buoyed by Egypt's revolution and fed up with American foreign policy. But the wave of pan-Arab solidarity sweeping the region seems to have done little to dilute the appeal of Valentine's Day, a romantic holiday with Christian roots and a uniquely American commercial spin. In the past few years, Valentine's Day has become incredibly popular in Ramallah and other West Bank cities, and this year was no exception.
Last week, many store-owners in Ramallah's predominately Muslim shopping district, Manara, began displaying heart-shaped candy and stuffed animals emblazoned with familiar declarations, such as "I love You" and "Be My Mine" in Arabic and English. On the eve of Valentine's Day, the festivities continued in cities across the West Bank as Palestinians bought gifts for their loved ones and revelled in the reflected glow of Egypt's revolution.
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Picasso's true grit
Feb 14th 2011, 15:53 by A.R. | NEW YORK
VISITORS to Picasso’s new studio on rue Schoelcher in 1913 were greeted with quite a sight. “The whole studio seemed to be bristling with Picassos. All the bits of wood and frame had become like his pictures,” wrote Vanessa Bell in a letter to Duncan Grant, a fellow member of the Bloomsbury group. In the jumble of works on view, it was hard to tell what was art and what was soon to be art. Collage clippings were scattered on the desk and paintings were stacked against the walls. The room also held a still-life construction: a cardboard guitar, placed upon semi-circular cardboard tabletop, with some faux bois (fake wood) wallpaper behind.
This guitar, along with another one made of sheet metal in 1914 (which Picasso himself gave to the museum in the 1970s), are the inspiration for "Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914", a new show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2005 the aforementioned cardboard tabletop that belongs with the cardboard guitar was rediscovered in the MoMA basement, this exhibition marks the first time they are shown together, and also includes a variety of collages, ‘constructions’, drawings, photographs and paintings that follow similar themes. 
The show does an excellent job of highlighting the staggering amount of materials Picasso used and combined during this period: grit, paint, newspaper, sheet music, metal, faux wood and marble, cardboard and sheet metal. Small passages shine: the assertive line of a drawing, the delicate touch of a pin slid through newsprint, the way the metal guitar seems light and dynamic enough to be constructed out of paper. As Anne Umland, the show's curator, alluded in her presentation, one sees in this dynamic exhibition the primordial soup from which so much abstract art would be born: from Dada to Abstract Expressionism to the curving metal of minimalist sculpture.
Despite all this technical beauty, these works can be frustrating. A still life is sometimes just a still life, Picasso or not. And serious geometric cubism can be difficult world to spend a long time in. The emotional resonance typical of Picasso’s work is largely absent in these endless variations on guitars and overlapping pieces of paper.
Still, one doesn’t have to like each study to appreciate Picasso's zeal in shattering artistic convention. In 1913 the avant-garde journal Les Soirées de Paris published a photo of the cardboard guitar with the caption “PICASSO NATURE MORT”. This marked the exciting, scandalous end of naturalistic art, and the birth of something new.
"Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914" is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until June 6th
 
Picture Credit: Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) Still life with Guitar. Variant state. Paris, assembled before November 15, 1913.
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