Monday, 29 July 2013

Why the arts ARE NOT in decline

If comments on the internet are anything to go by, the arts are most certainly fecund. After a golden period, the arts have regressed back to primordiality, lacking anything in the way of intelligence or value. The classics tower over the contemporaries, who will always be overshadowed and trumped.

First of all, creativity should be a timeless human asset. Human creativity should express itself in any period, regardless of the socio-political context. There will always be interesting individuals who perceive the world in unique and revolutionary ways.

Now that we are in the throes of post-modernism, everything is being done. All genres in all fields are being recycled and reinvented. There is not a dearth of anything valuable; all genres are being innovated in different ways. Whatever it is you are interested in, it will be explored by someone. Social realism will try to capture current contemporary society, the way Flaubert and Zola captured the 19th century. The same is true with modernism, abstract expressionism, cubism, etc. Once these schools of thought have been founded, they will be adopted by new artists and will be given a new slant. Genres are being amalgamated more and more, meaning that disputes over which aesthetic is the best are no longer as important. Every genre is considered to have its own merits.

The problem now does not lie with the artists - because they will always be around - it lies with the distribution. The mainstream media compartmentalises entertainment. Mass audiences are spoon-fed bland products and are never alerted to more sophisticated fare. In the past, television and media always had lengthy discussions and panels on a number of pertinent topics. Writers appeared on chat shows. Documentaries on science and history were given prime time slots. Now the media is very, very dumbed down. Although there is a demand for culture, it is not given the prominence it deserves.

Writer Gore Vidal mentioned that authors like Proust and Melville do exist in the present day, but they would never be able to make such an indelible impact because there are less readers. He said that you can't have literature without readers - and he was right. In order for great writers/musicians/etc to make a broader impact, there has to be a concerted effort to read/hear them. Otherwise, they will perish in obscurity.

The internet has facilitated access to such artists. But again, with the internet, you have to make a concerted effort to find something. It is not elucidated nor clarified for you. The internet is quite diffuse and one has to navigate through an awful lot of dreck until one finds a nugget.

Nostalgia for times past is hardly helpful. It leads nowhere. The past is also idealised and seen out of context. (For example, 1960s cant is pretty trite - 'universal love,' 'we are all the same' - yet it still does not prevent people from romanticising the period as the apex of human endeavour.) If one is not satisfied with contemporary culture - and politics - then one ought to try to improve it in some way. Either by writing or doing something creative oneself, or trying to create interesting public discourse. If the arts are perceived to be infertile, then it is better to conceive new and original ideas to improve it.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Supporting the minnows

Football. I like football. It is an ember from my childhood. (As a child, I lived and breathed football.) I like watching it. I like following it. It is also diversionary. When I feel like doin' nothin' at all, I open up the BBC sport page and read about - guess what - football.

Though now, in many respects, the game is becoming quite superfluous. Most top flight clubs hoard in a multibillionaire sheik who artificially inflates the club with star signings. Genuine clubs with genuine support tend to dwindle. Most of the top flight teams could hardly be called real football clubs the way they were thirty-odd years ago. Most of them are conglomerates run with cynical motives.

Tournaments then become predictable and uncompetitive. Spain is the apotheosis of all this. Barcelona and Real Madrid pocket all the money from the TV rights, leaving the rest of the clubs in limbo. It's a two-horse race, to put it politely. (I heard a supporter from Athletic Bilbao tell me that the rest of the clubs should partition themselves from the big two teams and form their own separate league.) England's tournament is also dominated by big-spending clubs. The Bundesliga and, in some respects, the French league are comparatively fairer. Montpellier won the French league a couple of years ago, the equivalent of Wigan Athletic winning the Premier League here (more about them below).

So, if we live in an age where clubs are run as such, what do we do? The answer is simple. Support genuine football clubs who run their business organically and fairly. Support your local team. If that team is false and artificial, look elsewhere and support a team with the aforementioned characteristics.

The team I supported as a child, Arturo Fernandez Vial, are down in the doldrums at the minute. Shame, as they are one of these genuine clubs. They play in Concepción, quite a small city (population of 500,000; greater Concepción comprises a million people at a push). It has three football clubs: Arturo Fernandez Vial, Deportes Concepción (Deportes Maricón - Faggots - as we call them) and Universidad de Concepción (nobody calls them anything 'cos nobody supports them).

Fernandez Vial are supported by real working people and have the largest support overall. In fact, the success of each team is conversely proportional to their amount of supporters. Fernandez Vial are in the third tier, Deportes Maricón are in the second tier and Universidad de Concepción are in the first.

In the sprawling vast country that is Chile, people generally support the three corporate conglomerate teams from the capital Santiago (thus making the league predictable and uncompetitive). Someone pathetically told me 'Here we don't support the local teams - that's a purely English phenomenon - you support your father's team.' Incidentally, as a young Chilean child - because that's what I was back then, despite my bright blond hair - my dad took me to see a game between Magallanes and Fernandez Vial, as he supported Magallanes. Being a young contrarian, I chose to support Vial. I insisted that my dad take me to see all their games and he eventually became an Aurinegro as well.

Vial's committed fan-base, the Furia Guerrera.
Vial, and even Deportes Maricón, are teams with history. Vial were founded by in 1903 and were christened after the politician who raised the wages of Concepción's railway workers. Deportes Maricón were an alliance of several regional teams dotted around Concepción. Vial are a team supported by working class people, Maricón fans are generally supported by the middle classes (who have dubious political inclinations). Universidad de Concepción were founded by the local university in 1994. Why should the university start a football club? Just think of the productive and socially constructive projects they could be funding! Think of all the scholarships they could raise for disadvantaged students! All the cultural events they could organise! Instead, they fund a football club nobody cares about! That really rankles me!
Because that club is guaranteed financial security, they prosper. Dpt. Maricón receive less funding, so they are in the tier below. Vial, meanwhile, despite their committed following, have a ramshackle and corrupt organisation. So they suffer.
I used to see them play every home game. The players weren't gifted, but they worked bloody hard. Back then, we were in the second tier and always on the verge of ascending to the first.
When I moved to England aged eleven, my interest in football lapsed for a very long time. It was only when Marcelo Bielsa was appointed Chilean manager, and managed to get Chile playing fulminating football, that rekindled my passion for the game.
When I started following the Premier League, I chose to support Wigan Athletic. Why Wigan, you may ask?
Well, their Houdini act at the tail-end of the 2010-11 season grabbed me. They were 2-0 down against West Ham during the second half and went on to mount a stunning 3-2 victory.
The way the club is run is also laudable. The owner, Dave Whelan, does not invest that much money anymore. What they do is sign obscure players, make them better, sell them and restart the process. Their previous manager, Roberto Martinez, also made them play stylish entertaining football. With limited resources, it is quite dangerous to play with three defenders. A team like Arsenal have the infrastructure and the funding to make that kind of system fairly risk-free. Wigan Athletic were, and hopefully will continue to be, courageous in opting for that kind of positive game plan.
Wigan Athletic
Another blistering Houdini act followed the next season. Last season they were unlucky, as they were blighted by a number of injuries. Three of their defenders were injured, thus making them even more vulnerable. You always knew that for every two goals they'd score, they would concede three in return. Relegation certainly is shattering.
But then, they won the FA cup! They beat Manchester City in the final - a team costing 80 million pounds vs. a team with a net value 10 million. It was the second coming.
Roberto Martínez has had offers from big clubs in the past, which he snuffed. He has departed Wigan and gone to Everton, another genuine club. They are a team with a mid-table budget who are always contending for places in Europe. They are also a very communal club, with great supporters. It was a perfect move.
There is a team that, when they play, the whole world stops for me. They are a national team - Chile.
If they play a world cup game, I pretty much have a nervous breakdown watching them. Bielsa's glorious work has fostered a great generation of players and we play scintillating stuff at our best. I grew up with the generation of Salas-Zamorano. There were flashes of greatness back then, followed by a dark age. But, when Bielsa took over, it was a real awakening. A team that used to play like donkeys can now wipe the floor with their opponents - on a good day!
In any case, it is much better to support the minnows. The reasons I gave above should rest my case. Also, when you do support a big team, you win so much that the umpteenth title hardly means anything to you. When your punitive little team wins something, it means the world to you. That's how I felt when Wigan won the FA cup and that's how I felt when Chile beat Argentina for the first time. Who knows, might I experience that when Fernandez Vial win the Copa Libertadores? A man can dream!

Friday, 12 July 2013

What Labour should be doing

Ed Miliband 

The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour party was initially met with a lot of derision, bewilderment and faint optimism. His party was divided then and, at the time of writing, it is even more fractured.

What sparked this faint optimism for some? The financial crisis, for Miliband, marked the end of free market dogma. It meant the beginning of a renaissance for the left. Politics as a whole would take a turn to the left and begin to embrace social democracy. The Thatcherite model of deregulation and private equity had failed on its own terms.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The political pendulum has swung further to the right. The reckless austerity policies made by the Tory government have left a disproportionate amount of people destitute. A lot of our economic woes are also being blamed on the UK's membership of the EU. People are disenchanted with Europe and want to pull out. The economic crisis has also fostered a lot of racism and cultural prejudice. Immigration is seen by less informed folk as the cause of the sinking economy. All these feelings have been canalised into UKIP, which is winning over defectors from the Tory party and, even, Labour and the Lib Dems. Although UKIP present themselves as mainstream and respectable, a lot of their policies are indistinguishable from far-right parties like EDL or the BNP.

Although Labour have been leading the polls of late, this is only because of the catastrophic term led by the Tories. The Tories also belittle the Labour party with bullying tactics and false rhetoric. They have managed to create a false consensus on the economy. Thanks to the thieving lies peddled by Cameron and Osbourne, many, many people believe that the economic crisis came as a result of the previous Labour government overspending. It is truly mind-boggling how so many people can believe this fabrication. (It is also very cynical to lambast the errors of a previous government to gain currency.) The financial crisis was a global phenomenon which, as explained above, was wrought by the investments of bankers in Wall Street. In effect, it was a direct consequence of government deregulation of the banks implemented by Thatcher and Reagan many moons ago. Under Gordon Brown, the economy was slowly healing. That, of course, was undone by the crude economic policies of the Tories.

Initially Labour talked of the concept 'Pre-distribution' (which appears to have fizzled out). Instead of improving inequalities via tax and benefit systems, the government would begin by rising wages. Under the fiscal constraint which Labour would inevitably inherit from the Tories, it would be the ideal alternative to redistribution and would begin to improve social mobility. (Disparities in class have been very, very wide after the 20-year reign of the Tories and the 13-year leadership of New Labour.)

Now the current Tory government party is trailing over territory not even Thatcher dared tread. They are cutting welfare at a devastating rate. Jobs and the economy are stagnating more than ever. Welfare housing is being cut. This could lead to thousands of people homeless. Labour should robustly confront the Tories over this. Instead, they are very wishy-washy and seem undecided. That still hasn't prevented the Tories from dubbing them 'The welfare party.'

This eventually led to their capitulation. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls jettisoned talk of Keynesian growth and made the admission that the Labour party would continue with austerity. This still did not seem to satisfy the Tories. Now they painted their opponents as 'Surrendering.' Whatever they do, they will caricaturise them.

In fact, the only thing that keeps the Tory afloat is to savagely attack the Labour party. All the pejorative epithets listed above are directed at Labour. More pertinently, Ed Miliband is deemed to a desiccated, uncharismatic leader unable to govern. For most people, the only instinct when they see him is to laugh. He is also a terrible speaker. This plays to the advantage of the Tories. They tell people: when you vote us out, do you want that ridiculous guy to be Prime Minister?

Ed Miliband could hardly be called dextrous when it comes to handling situations. He procrastinates over long spells of time before giving speeches. And, as just transpired a week ago, him and his party received another blow with the debacle in Falkirk.

Labour, as is evident from the title, were a party that were originally founded to serve common people. They were always aligned with Unions. To this day, most of their funding comes from Unions, especially Unite. As it has been revealed, Unite have inordinate power in determining the election of Labour ministers.

This leaves Miliband in a quandary: should he terminate Labour's alliance with the Unions? If so, he would be yielding power to Blairite faction of the party and would completely abolish the Social Democratic aspirations he began with. Labour would emolliate itself as centre-ground party for all eternity. 

All this is symptomatic of current British politics. We now have the death of ideology. None of the main parties have a clearly defined ethos. They are varying degrees of centre. All they have are bland policies which make little head-way. People know it and put their heads in the sand. The Conservative party offer 'pragmatic solutions' which are hazardous and destructive. When the Liberal Democrats finally got their share of power, they dropped the principles they had as a protest vote party and joined allegiance with Tory 'pragmatism.' If this continues, British politics will stagnate forever.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Essence precedes existence

The axiom Jean-Paul Sartre used for his philosophy Existentialism was existence precedes essence. The universe is meaningless, life is meaningless, there is no God. We are born with a blank slate. Thence the interesting questions arise. We determine our own moral choices and choose to take our lives in interesting directions. We are shaped by our immediate surroundings, rather than by our essence; that is, our own innate qualities.

If 'God is dead,' what moral framework do we have? This is one of the main tenets of Existentialism. Of course, the idea of the 'Blank slate' was symptomatic of the time. The movement also spawned great works of literature. (My favourite of them being one of Sartre's own, Nausea.) At the time, several attempts were made in psychology, one of them which seems rather risible in this day and age, Freudian psychoanalysis. However, with the development of technology we have been able to examine the brain at much closer detail and this seems to be disproving many of the lofty claims of this ilk. Indeed, it has disproved the very idea of a 'blank slate.'

There is something about Existentialism that appeals enormously to the 'smash-the-state' youngster. Yet, if you were to rigorously adhere to an existentialist moral framework, the whole world would probably crush down on you. As you grow older, you realise that no matter how altruistic you are, there are people out there who are predatory and mean-spirited. They will clobber you to pieces.

Anyway, the scientific developments which tell us that we are indeed born with a set of innate abilities all stem from neuroscience. In the comments section a few posts ago, I stated that it is very dangerous to posit an objective basis for ethical judgments (many neuroscientists claim that they can assert moral 'truth,' whatever that is). All this aside, they have examined the brain at closer detail and discovered that it has innate faculties. In this regard, neuroscience has made crucial advancements.

One of the most pertinent of these developments was made by Noam Chomsky in the late 50s. He pointed out that the human brain has a Language Acquisition Device which is able to register and compute language. This is stored in every child's mind and is nurtured by its immediate environment. Yet it also suggests that parts of the brain have laid dormant for centuries. For example, we all have an ability to decode mathematical formulas, no matter how deficient we are at this (as I most certainly am). It wasn't until the Seventeeth century that mathematics and geometry were considered important. This suggests in many ways that our brains are not only conditioned by natural selection and experience, it must mean that we have faculties which are exercised under the right circumstances.

Mere casual observation would suffice to prove this right (I should probably rely on this more, as I know next to nothing about neurology). How do you account for the predilections we have? For our own curiosity? How do certain people who are brought up in narrow neighbourhoods develop interests for certain things, yet they lack tuition or instruction? How do you account for scientists who make revolutionary discoveries, yet have been brought up on the science they have disproved? Why do two brothers, who have had the exact conditioning and upbringing, have propensities for different things?

There are also several ticks and mannerism which seem to be inherited from our DNA/genetics. How come do you share the similar demeanour as you father and grand-father. In fact, each DNA is radically different from others. This seems to suggest that we have a predetermined genetic make-up which determines our behaviour.

Even the reasoning of ethical issues seems to be enabled by innate faculties we have. Although we are born with such faculties, they are shaped by human experience which provides it with the necessary data. A troubled and tumultuous existence will surely warp the ability to reason with moral issues.

So, in the manifold ways this blog has speculated on such issues, I believe that we are born with innate faculties which are moulded by human experience.