Welcome to Starting Monday - where I muse over my past week of busyness, and let it set me a challenge for the next seven days.
This week was mostly devoted to semi-utopian activities. Meaning, traversing round London on public transport, watching and reading a selection of carefully-wrought artworks, and then sitting down to a vigorous discussion of them with friendly, expert peers. It’s otherwise known as being a reviewer on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review programme (and here’s the outcome on the iPlayer).
The experience - which I’ve done occasionally since 2009, and which I tend to regard as a rare benison from an otherwise demanding freelance life - triggers two topics I want to explore here. (This place being a zone where the question of how to make a living, and how to realise a good life, are equally considered).
One is what it means, these days, to give complex artworks proper attention. And second, whether the practice of aesthetics will become increasingly important to us, as the domain of the uniquely human becomes challenged by A.I. and automation.
Saturday Review has a curious connection to me. The show was instituted when James Boyle, a no-nonsense Glaswegian man of the humanities, became Radio 4’s director in 1997, and overhauled the station’s schedule. Boyle was previously at BBC Radio Scotland, and while there had flown me all over America to record the mid-90s pathologies of the Republic. So when I do the SR, I feel Boyle’s takes-no-snash intelligence all over it.
The review menu is usually a careful blend of the fine and the popular arts. In this episode, the extremes were a collection of over 80 abstract paintings by women - and then a glutinous Netflix revival of an already cheesy 60’s SF series Lost In Space. In between these extremes, there was an Asian-British comic epic novel, a West End theatre show about cheating in a TV quiz, and a realist-thriller French film about child custody and male anger.
Part of the role one is supposed to play - not just in Saturday Review, but as a print reviewer too - is that of the critic hovering over all these contingent, insufficient artworks, with enough learning and experience to place them precisely on the ladder of value. When you’re on the radio show, you only get a few minutes’ airtime to make your pungent points - so you tend to come across as overly judgemental.
But inside, I’m usually exulting at the sheer semiotic luxury of being paid (a little, anyway) to dwell with the decisions and strategies of creators, artists and narrators. And you establish your private themes of importance across all these artworks.
For example, I couldn’t ignore the way that data and information, its systems and devices, is shaping artistic sensibilities across all these genres. In our novel this week, The One Who Wrote Destiny, the most poignant character is Neha, the geek daughter of a Kenyan-Asian immigrant.
Stricken with the same cancer that killed her mother before she could meet her, Neha uses her algorithmic skills to read patterns of illness, trying to anticipate the mortal fates of her extended family.
In Surface Work (the abstract art exhibition), it was striking to note that 2018 artists were explicitly referencing digitality, neuroscience or complexity theory in their artwork. But also that older artists, active in quite different historical periods (revolutionary Russia, pre-Nazi Paris, the Brazilian “Tropicalia” movement) were also using the same geometric or repetitive patterns.
I suddenly felt as if these artworks were revealing a deeper continuum - about how art has sensed that our modern “reality” is shaped by abstract, immaterial forces (money, organisational ideas, latterly software). And that perhaps looking at abstract art might improve our current capacity to be pattern-recognisers - to sense the looming shapes in the data blizzard of our lives.
The theatre show Quiz was based on an actual case of game show contestants being found guilty of fraud, by means of systematic and orchestrated cheating in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was a jolly night of entertainment in the West End - but I was grateful to the playwright for dropping some indigestible nuggets into the script, where the rule-sets of the game of life were brutally revealed.
“It’s all rigged, mate”, said a track-suited scammer, “the law, business, politics, property… no-one gets to ‘play fair’ in real life. Why should a stupid TV game be protected from that?” The cheats had even gerry-built a machine to improve their reaction time on phone-ins, enabling them to get into consideration for the show.
I ended up being depressed at Quiz - not its vibrant staging, but the reality behind it. How much misdirected ingenuity, knowledge and calculation can one stand to look at? How small it is, applying your cleverness to bending the rules of the big game. Wouldn't it be better to be able to shape the games, to invent the rule-sets yourself?
I could expand and weave similar themes through the remaining two items - but I hope the point is made. The politics of aesthetic appreciation, no matter what form or level of culture, is that we are granting ourselves the time and space to contemplate how our world works. And where human subjectivity and character fits into these machinations. Because these systems' effects don’t always depend on our agency and will.
But it seems to me much modern culture knows that we’re looking to see how these systems work (and work us). We want to see how “things are in the saddle and ride mankind”, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it.
Which finally, and briefly, brings me to that second question - about aesthetics helping to define the uniqueness of the human against the routinisation of tasks executed by algos and robots. The lesson of this week’s Saturday Review items could answer that, yes, it might do.
But the forces ranged against it (for example, algorithms crunching multi-millions of consumer choices, then suggesting “if you liked this, you’ll love…”), require a level of quirkiness and idiosyncrasy of response that burst the boundaries of a mainstream-media critics’ show.
Still, this is what podcasts and social media is for. Our cognitive excess - as opposed to the cognitive limits imputed by the nudge thinkers - must go somewhere. But I’m always grateful to my Saturday Review stints. They remind me just how gloriously plentiful and excessive a culture-centred society would be. Surely enough thrills there to occupy us, instead of shopping the planet to death.
So, the thought I’ll carry forth for the next week: What is the value of artistic appreciation? Isn’t cultivating it one of the best ways we move away from consumerist gratification - by spending time with the fewer, complex things we value most?
What’s your answers to these? Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.