Softley does itby Alexander Linklater / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Aesthetes fight war of agreement There’s nothing quite like the insults that art critics spit at each other. Previous debates in this magazine (on such piffling issues as global poverty, turmoil in Kashmir or British entry into the euro) have provoked merely terse disagreement between combatants. But, “crikey!”-as Matthew Collings exclaims in this issue (p18) after Brian Sewell has slashed at him with a bloody scythe of abuse-art really makes people angry. Brian, of course, is famous for his mellifluously barbed tirades, normally directed at contemporary British artworks. Here, however, Matt receives from Brian an even more severe lashing for being a rival critic attempting to offer a compliment (the ultimate sin) to the elder statesman of stick-poking. Pricked by accusations of lubricity and flatulence, Matt presses Brian with the counter-charge of being, “a sado-masochistic nutcase.” The curiosity is how much these two actually agree. In fact, on the subject of so-called “conceptual” or “Brit” art (as opposed to serious abstraction), they engage in an unspoken clash of agreement. Essentially, they both think most Britart is daft (though Brian thinks all of it is daft). Could this be a turning point in national taste? Here is the critic who presents the Turner Prize on television standing shoulder to shoulder with the critic who most violently opposes the art promoted by that prize. They share a dislike of Tate Modern’s towering temple of contemporary conceptualism. “It is a silly, empty-headed place,” says Matt. Brian, for once, cannot disagree. For those mere tourists among us, who drift in and out of galleries with convictions of plasticine, this may be a moulding moment. Shockart: just add canap?s and TV executives BBC4, the channel which invites us to think (as long as we’ve thought to go digital), recently had a fun launch party stuffed to the oxters with Britart. I met Matt Collings there, who was being witty about bad-boy artist Michael Landy, who hadn’t shown up for a work of performance art, called “closing down sale.” Instead, a notice in the corner explained that a transcript for the show had been lost in an Essex landfill site. “That’s either totally ironic or actually true,” said Matt. I admit, my mind was mostly on the hot dogs (any party that gives out substantial junk food instead of sushi canap?s on micro-biscuits has my blessing). But a thought or two was provoked by Mat Collishaw’s “Shakin’ Jesus” video (which hung at the end of a long arcade where the hot dogs were). My pal, Saul-a typical Glaswegian atheist Jew-stared at the footage of a bloody Christ writhing on the screen and observed, “that actually manages to be offensive: a man starts a world religion, dies in agony, and 2,000 years later some prick puts him on a wall as a joke so that television executives can enjoy networking.” Personally, I reckon I’ve got too much savoir faire to find such things offensive. But it did occur to me that my granny, who once walked out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, would also have walked out on this. Then it struck me: Britart was invented to annoy people like my dead granny. Now that’s what I call a “concept.” Other cultural tourists from a distant galaxy Being an honest tourist (no “insider” rubbish, here, ed) I trotted off to a Bafta screening after this year’s awards. The film was K-Pax, a monumental vehicle for Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, who play out an engrossing patient-psychiatrist relationship. A big-budget ($45m) hit in the US, K-Pax places its director Iain Softley in a very small band of British filmmakers who have made Hollywood studio films and come away feeling happy. After directing some rather English pictures like Backbeat and Wings of the Dove, he now belongs among the trans-pondental company of Alan Parker, Tony and Ridley Scott, and Fatal Attraction director, Adrian Lyne. Softley confesses he willingly tailored his artistic ambitions to the inevitable commercial pressures of a deal with Miramax (“it would have been much easier to make a film for $25m,” he adds lightly). But what is surprising is how much authentic “British gloominess and ambiguity” survived the process. Spacey plays a benevolent nutter called Prot who believes he is from a distant planet. The fact that you can’t work out whether he is actually an alien or not is testament to how far Softley was able to bend an American aesthetic of certainty. Prot wows a group of theoretical physicists in a planetarium, demonstrating amazing knowledge of little- known star systems. British audiences may feel this scene stretches cinematic licence too far. Actually, it was backed up by the good old certainties of American research. The film’s psychiatrist-consultant, the director of the Psychiatric Institute of New York, told Softley the real life story of a “savant,” much like Prot, who wrote a 13 volume history of the planet he was from and submitted it, successfully, to the University of Cincinnati’s library. Crazy, huh?