Arts and Identity
Should ‘the arts’ be used as a way of constructing - or reconstructing - a sense of who we are as individuals, as society, or as a nation? To what extent does this sort of thinking undermine any notion of universalism in the arts, or does the shift mean we must reconstitute an idea of what universalism means?
The arts have long been used as a way of exploring self-understanding, but as the idea of making clear critical judgments about artworks comes under fire, does the current focus on respecting cultural differences reflect a deeper lack of critical authority? And to what extent does it ‘dumb down’ people’s ability to appreciate and enjoy culture more generally?
The impression that was given by these individuals was that despite their HIV diagnosis, they were getting on with their lives. So I was somewhat confused as to why the Bambanani members saw themselves as ‘disabled’. And this was the first point that came up in the discussion when Gadsden informed us that Nondumiso wasn’t even aware that she had a disability until she had been informed by the artist.
Tower Hamlets didn’t suffer so badly from the riots compared to other areas of London, probably because of this tight-knit community of which Bayjoo’s young men are part.
In fact, central to bohemianism was a kind of ambivalence – were these real artists, or were they simply avoiding the traditional expectations of their stations by legitimising their own pleasure-seeking? This question of the status and quality of art was a genuine one and remains with us today, albeit tangled in quite contemporary concerns.
This element of the staging also added to the problems of the message the play might or might not have been intentionally delivering. After all, this grand piano looming over them did take on an immensely powerful symbolic role. It looked a bit like they’d decided to put up a symbol for God, and that they’d decided God was probably German culture.
What is truly your own private space? Is this the space of a lodger in a communal bunk house, at home or in a park making love, or can it be on a bus pondering the day ahead? What about those social but private liaisons? How do you regard the strip joint, couple’s kissing in the cinema or a Wall Street brothel. And what about what’s public - anarchists in city square, assassinated individuals, dead soldiers on the battlefield?
He is amazed to see not only that information was omitted, but that this operative fabricated the details of a whole play Dreyman and his cohorts were supposed to have written for the 40th anniversary of East Germany’s founding.
The film poses two views on prejudice and identity: the liberal but ultimately unconvincing view of the priest who protests it should make no difference; and the conservative view of Katrina’s brother, who like the producer Emil Nofal, believes one should be proud of one’s identity and not betray it. ‘You are born what you are, and for your lifespan that is what you are going to be.’
He is looking forward to returning laden with presents to his wife and two daughters back home in Newcastle for the first time in two years, and is closing up at the end of the night when two white men, punch drunk after a boisterous party, roar onto the forecourt of the diner on a bike.
Rather than saying: ‘Come! See the proles in recreations of their natural habitat!’, it seems to be saying: ‘look at yourselves looking at this, and have a think about that’. Indeed, it makes a strong case for every play purporting to be anthropological being staged in glass cases in museums so that everyone watching is made aware of this.
There is sophisticated style in this production, and there is, as Zuabi declared was his intention, remarkably little anger. Annoyingly, however, there is also a very clear intent to tell the audience what to make of the story, an intent fully embraced from the moment you step into the Young Vic until the time you leave the building.
In the driving seat, an apt metaphor, given the city’s love affair with the motor car, were the ‘Lunar Men’, or ‘Lunaticks’ as they dubbed themselves. The Lunar Society met when the moon shone brightest, as that was the only way they could get home safely from their highbrow gatherings. They were, like most modern day Brummies, inventive, practical souls – but more than that, they were men of ideas.
The eight rooms are laudable attempts to concretely illuminate different aspects of a characteristically nebulous issue. However the overall effect is one of an unwelcome eclecticism and fragmentation, as a sustained sense of the profound questions being asked by the exhibition gets lost in the particularity of the different rooms.
The show subverts the very notion of cross-cultural identity against itself, undermining international presentation as a pretentious, even bourgeois, cultural practice. The need to label according to nationality or origin is, they suggest, preposterous and in doing so we seek only to confirm our own preconceptions about other cultures.
A backward-glancing Joe Orton shows the playwright exhibiting a defiance that looks camp but – as we know from his plays and diary – he was anything but wimpish. Painter Francis Bacon looks drunk and weepily belligerent, but you sense that he’s ready for another struggle at the easel depicting the red meat of human existence before heading-off to the Colony Room.