Gray’s Anatomy: selected writings by John Gray. Published on 2nd April by Allen Lane
This selection of political philosopher John Gray’s essays is drawn from the last 20 years, but there’s nothing in the book that feels dated or threadbare. While eschewing any prescience, or seer-like credentials—he has consistently anticipated the shape of things to come, rather than being blindsided by them, like so many more ideological thinkers.
As Gray is at pains to stress in his introduction, he never fell for the nostrums of globalisation, any more than he believed for a nanosecond in the soi-disante “end of history.” If anything, the fall of the Berlin wall was, for Gray, a tocsin that woke him up to the fact that human history was getting bumpier and bumpier, rather than being the stately advance anticipated by post-Enlightenment thinkers across the spectrum, from aggressive free-market ideologues, to woolly liberal meliorists.
I first came into contact with Gray’s thinking when I was sent his Schopenhauer-influenced collection of timely aphorisms,Straw Dogs, a book that earned him a formidable reputation as a pessimistic and minatory thinker. It was a seminal work for me, coming at a time when the British left was painfully riving itself, as it fell crotch-first on the vaulting horse of the Iraq war. What Gray’s thought showed me, quite clearly, was that if supporting the export of democracy through the barrel of a gun was a condition of being a leftist, then I was no longer of that party. It followed—and he led me there—that I had to reconsider some of my primary assumptions about how a more egalitarian and more peaceful society could be enjoined—if not achieved. Reading Gray’s other books—on globalisation and al Qaeda and, most recently, Black Mass, his masterful account of the inevitability of Bush’s war for superannuated Trotskyists such as Christopher Hitchens—has led me to a profound reevaluation of my own values.
Gray is not a system-builder, he is not an ideological trumpet, he is—in the coinage of Nassim Nicholas Taleb—a sceptical empiricist. In an age when “human rights” has become a fig leaf imperfectly hiding old-fashioned and priapic realpolitik, Gray teaches us that true humanism is to be found in uncertainty and doubt.
Will Self is author of “The Butt” (Bloomsbury)
The Fever By Wallace Shawn. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Royal Court, from 2nd April, Tel: 020 7565 5000 Not many plays upset an audience’s sense of its own cultural and political wellbeing as effectively as Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, returning to the theatre where the author himself delivered the pungent monologue in 1991, the Royal Court. Available to actors of both sexes, the role is this time taken by Clare Higgins, while The Fever is the first in a three-month season of work by this brilliant, unusual philosophical playwright.
How unusual? Critic John Lahr reckons that Shawn is alone among American playwrights in challenging “the prestige of individualism.” In The Fever, a traveller, holed up in a comfortable hotel in an unnamed country with a war going on outside, makes guilty connections between his own position of privilege and that of the undeserving poor.
Shawn, son of the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, is perhaps best known for his geeky, creepy, comic appearances in films like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, but his plays are his real achievement. One of them, My Dinner with Andre (1980) became his signature film, directed by Louis Malle. His co-star in the movie, the off-Broadway director Andre Gregory, returns to the Royal Court to direct the second piece of the season, Grasses of a Thousand Colours, a premiere in which Shawn will appear alongside Miranda Richardson. Finally, Jane Horrocks stars in Aunt Dan and Lemon (1985), about how decent people can turn into monsters—an underpinning theme for Shawn, theatre’s original liberal contrarian.
Michael Coveney is a critic and biographer
Whitechapel Gallery re-opening 5th April, Tel: 020 7522 7888
The Whitechapel Gallery reopens this April after an ambitious £13.5m renovation. Retaining the original arts and crafts core of this much loved landmark, the gallery has expanded into the former Passmore Edwards Library next door—creating 78 per cent more gallery space and providing new archive and research facilities. The gallery was opened in 1901 by the pioneering philanthropists, Canon Samuel and Henrietta Barnett “to bring great art to the people of east London.” Always uncompromising in its support of daring work, it has combined a role as London outpost of the international avant garde with alert responsiveness to the changing needs of its evolving local populations. In the beginning, it fostered an outstanding generation of Jewish artists and writers, the Whitechapel Boys (including David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, and poet Isaac Rosenberg), while later it introduced London audiences to pop art, American abstract expressionism and the work of David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Richard Long. Overseen by artist Rachel Whiteread, and embedded within what has become Europe’s densest concentration of working artists, this latest conversion enables the gallery to fire on several cylinders at once.
The main show, in the renovated central gallery, will be the first large-scale retrospective for the leading German sculptor, Isa Genzken, unaccountably little known in Britain. This bold choice by director Iwona Blazwick is matched by her coup in securing the loan, from the UN, of the Rockefeller’s fullscale tapestry replica of Picasso’s Guernica. This will form the centrepiece of the Bloomberg commission, an installation commissioned from the Turner Prize-nominated sculptor, Goshka Macuga, celebrating the charged episode in 1939 when Picasso’s original made its only London appearance here to raise funds for anti-fascist fighters in the Spanish civil war. Further exhibition spaces will play host to modern master works from the British Council collection and an archive exhibition about the Whitechapel Boys. As gloom envelopes the City, the Whitechapel is once again a beacon of resilient cultural vitality.
Emma Crichton-Miller is an arts writer
The Simón Bolívar orchestra In residence at the South Bank Centre 14th-18th April. Tel: 0871 663 2500
When tickets for the two concerts from the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall went on sale they were snapped up within days. This is extraordinary. Why should a Venezuelan youth orchestra sell out as quickly as the Vienna Philharmonic? One reason is the undoubted brilliance of its music director, the diminutive and vastly energetic Gustavo Dudamel. He now leads two front-rank orchestras, the Gothenburg Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But there’s a special magic about Dudamel when he appears in front of the orchestra that nurtured him. This orchestra is living proof that the regenerating power of music, which so often seems like a pious hope, actually exists. Together with the dozens of regional youth orchestras that make up Venezuela’s unique El Sistema project, it has given thousands of young people a sense of purpose and protected them from the anomie of the country’s streets. It has even spawned a British offshoot, on a housing estate in Stirlingshire. But this is not social engineering dressed up as art; it is simply great music-making. There are still some tickets left for the residency, which will include Latin jazz and fusion as well as relays of the two classical concerts. So go, and be inspired.
Ivan Hewett is music critic for the Telegraph
All Tomorrow’s Parties 8th-17th May; Minehead, Somerset www.atpfestival.com
The art of the curator is strangely lacking in the festival world. For the most part, press coverage, public appetite and sales figures will determine main stage line-ups. Curators, on the other hand, can indulge in experiments of personal taste, and bring quirk, authenticity and risk to otherwise predictable programmes.
Now in its tenth year, All Tomorrow’s Parties is an international “anti-festival” that celebrates the curator’s role. Held in the US, Britain and now Australia (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds curated the first event in January) ATP boasts an intimate, non-corporate atmosphere without sponsors or cider buses. Not only does it turn over entire weekends to guest curators, but goes one step farther and allows ticket holders, via rounds of online voting, to choose their own line-ups. The list of previous custodians is impressive—the Shins, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Sonic Youth, Portishead, Vincent Gallo, My Bloody Valentine and Matt Groening have all put their record collections on stage—while acts have ranged from alternative rockers Pavement to the art of Yoko Ono. In May, former Pixies bassist Kim Deal and her band the Breeders will curate a weekend at the Minehead festival, with Bon Iver, the Throwing Muses and Yann Tiersonn topping the bill. So far ticket holders have voted, among others, Devo and avant-pop newcomers School of Seven Bells onto stage, with more to come.
For the jaded festival goer, though, perhaps the most appealing features of the ATP events are its venues. Forget the mud and stench of over-populated campsites, at Butlins holiday centre you get a private chalet with comfy beds and clean loos, not to mention the use of on-site betting shops, fast-food joints and water parks. Guaranteed to bring the anthropologist out in everyone.
Nick Crowe was the drummer for Gay Dad
Also recommended The Damned United, 27th March Emerging director Tom Hooper takes on a screenplay by Peter Morgan with Michael Sheen “channelling” Brian Clough. Could this be the first ever good football movie? See Hermione Eyre’s profile of Hooper in Prospect March 2009 and David Goldblatt’s take in this month’s Sporting life, p64.