Truth and Imaginations

A birthday dinner party somewhere on the right bank. After a few bottles of champagne in the lounge area, all the guests assemble around a heavy oval shaped table: five women, four men and one teenage boy. While waiting for the fish, that needs some extra oven-time, we struggle over a topic to engage us all, and someone mentions the magic abbreviation DSK.

Now at this time, pretty much the whole world is convinced the man is guilty. But the French still heavenly defend him. They might assume some questionable behavior – where there is smoke there must be some fire – but nobody at the dinner table believes in rape. They are all members of the un-united anti-Sarkozy front, which has probably played a role in the formation of these beliefs. “Did you know,” the host asks, “that the head of the NY police department is very close friends with our president?”

So what, according to them, has happened? One of the women has an instant scenario ready. “I don’t know who’s behind it,” she says, “and I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but it’s obvious that this man was framed. Or it was a freak accident. As I see it, DSK called an escort service from his hotel room and received three proposals: they could send a girl dressed up as a rabbit, as a pirate, or as a chambermaid. Next scene: a girl comes in, dressed in a chambermaid uniform, and the man makes his advances. When the girl rejects him, he states clearly that he does not like it rough, but that his credit card was charged and he does expect some service. Next scene…”
“Let’s leave it that,” the father of the teenage boy intervenes, and we all laugh.
“I see it very differently, though,” a male guest says. “It must have been one of those physical comedy episodes, where a rather innocent move of one person, leads to a spontaneous response from someone else, and by the end of it all, they are caught up in a chaotic dance that spins out of control. Imagine, for example, that DSK was in his hotel room alone, perhaps a little bit too alone, so he goes into the bathroom in his robe and…” He looks at the teenager across from him. “Excusez-moi, but I have to say this: he starts to masturbate. Being caught up in the act, he does not hear the knock on the door and is subsequently deaf to the maid coming into the room to clean up. Only after he is finished, he hears something and kicks open the bathroom door to see where the noise is coming from. The maid yells, and he launches forward to calm her, forgetting his current state of soiled nudity. Of course this act inspires more panic and…”
“We get the picture,” the mother of the teenage boy says. “Could anyone help me carry the fish to the table?”

Following the current events unfold, I keep wondering what has really happened. Will the truth be as comical as these French imaginations? I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed.

Midnight in Paris

You never have to drag me to a theater to see the new Woody Allen. You can always pop one of his classics into the DVD-player and see the approval on my face. But even I must admit, the quality of his films is not constant.

I did not know what to expect, when I went to see Midnight in Paris last week, before reading any reviews. Best case scenario: a new Manhattan. Worst case scenario: a new Cassandra’s Dream. All that was guaranteed were some laughs and some beautiful shots of the city I adore.

The film’s beginning is not the best. An un-assuming American couple on a short holiday in Paris, running into, by chance, another American couple. The dialogues are clever and funny, the acting very good. Yet, I am not engaged.

It isn’t until the magic appears, that my critical self is silenced, and I just watch, mesmerized as a child. History and fantasy are woven into each other, creating both hilarious and  philosophical  scenes. About half way the film I look at my husband, smiling, and say: ‘I love this film! I’m already looking forward to see it again!’ And he smiles right back at me and says: ‘Maybe my favorite Woody Allen after Annie Hall’.

When we get home and out of the magic realm, my husband and I analyze the movie and agree and disagree on its flaws. It doesn’t surprise me that Midnight in Paris, although opening the festival, was not selected for the official competition in Cannes. But a contemporary film that uses no 3D effects, no violence and no sex, and still thoroughly entertains you and makes you reflect about your life, that’s an accomplishment.

My enthusiasm thus remains: I love this film!

Lady Gaga and the fascist

It was a fascinating evening last night at the Dutch Institute in Paris. Not at all what I had expected, but fascinating all the same. Or perhaps I should say: fascinating for the very reason that it delivered something I did not expect.

The debate about the role of art in society is an old one. As is the discussion about the difference between high and low culture. But current political developments in the Netherlands have placed these subjects back on the agenda. It’s not just the new government that wants to cut its art budget; a recent poll showed that nearly half of the Dutch people believe that too much public money is spend on culture. Time to defend the necessity of art – or more concrete: to defend cultural subventions.

Four invitees, two Dutch and two French, all men (Frédéric Martel, Rob Riemen, Harry de Winter and Marc Restellini) where seated behind a table, with Fouad Laroui moderating their discussion. The audience was promised a structured dialogue about elitism, the rise of populist politicians, the situation in the US, the commercial aspect of arts and the global competition. But as soon as the first speaker made his statement, we all sensed that everyone was too passionate about the importance of culture, to allow a calm dialogue along premeditated lines.

This first speaker was cultural philosopher (and president of the Nexus Institute)  Riemen, stating that the Dutch politician Wilders, who had been referred to as a populist, was better called by its proper name: a fascist. It should therefore not have surprised anyone that Wilders attacked our culture. All fascists hate culture, as they all hate democracy. To Riemen, high culture was necessary to ensure or at least facilitate political freedom – in line with Spinoza, he believed that art helped us to establish human values.

The second speaker was sociologist Martel who came to the conclusion, after his research that took place in thirty countries, that the distinction between high and low culture had more or less disappeared. Of course there was still a difference between Beethoven and Lady Gaga, but the difference between a dance performance and Japanese manga was a lot more blurry.

But there it was: the mentioning of Lady Gaga (or Lady What’s-Her-Name, for some). She would dominate the debate from here on.

Museum-director Restellini was rather black and white in his opinion of her. Lady Gaga represented nothing but money. She was a young girl, possibly without any talent, being exploited. This statement made television producer De Winter “speechless”, although fortunately it did not leave him without words. To him, Lady Gaga was a genius. And sure, she had a great marketing team, but that did not mean she wasn’t an artist. What we used to consider bad or low culture had changed: HBO television series from the US were important cultural products.

Without even blinking, Restellini then admitted to have never seen or heard anything from Lady Gaga. Still, he was sure that she did not represent art.

His avowal exposed an underlying problem, as his opinion on Lady Gaga was not based on Lady Gaga. It was based on what he had read about her. But according to Riemen, we no longer lived in a reality with intelligent free media to inform us, we lived in a mediated world, where mass media prescribed our opinions.

Needless to say, the men did not reach an agreement on the importance, danger, genius or superficiality of Lady Gaga, but they did deliver an animated discussion. The only thing I regretted was that no one dared to ponder the evidence surrounding them.

We were all present at a free debate in a heavily funded cultural institute (a representative of the so called high culture *), but the walls surrounding us were covered with large prints of famous fashion photographer Sasha. Now I don’t want to say anything negative about her work – she more than deserves this exhibition – but it made me wonder: can a fashion photographer enter the realm of  high culture or does the institute not care about the distinction between high and low anymore?

Except for Riemen, none of the speakers gave a clear description of what they believed culture was supposed to give us, but fortunately for me, I agreed with the one statement that was made early on: art is an instrument to help us establish our human values. So, could anyone looking at these large fashion photographs feel enhanced, liberated from a limited mindset or transformed? Perhaps. And this ‘perhaps’ is no doubt the reason for this photographer’s presence on these walls.

The distinction between high and low culture seems mostly vanished, but that does not mean that all culture is in danger of becoming plain entertainment. When confronted with something (a painting, a television series, a Lady Gaga video clip), we shouldn’t ask: is this high or low? We should ask: does this have the potential to give us something we don’t expect, to force us to think outside the box, to change us? And if the answer is ‘yes’ or even ‘perhaps’, then that something is worth defending.

March 10th 2011 // L’Institut Néerlandais (The Dutch Institut) // UN CRI POUR LA CULTURE (A CRY FOR CULTURE)

* Please read the response from Jeanne Wikler on this in the comments.

God, dogs and money

A quick look at the NYT bestselling list for non-fiction paperbacks taught me a lot about the contemporary obsessions of the average American:

Number 1: ‘Heaven is for real’, a boy’s encounter with Jesus and the angels.

Number 2: ‘Inside of a dog’, the world from a dog’s point of view.

Number 3: ‘The big short’, about the people who saw the real estate crash coming and made billions.

God, dogs and money it is.

When Eva smiles

What can you do for someone who is seriously ill?
How can you comfort someone who is suffering?
In this case the answer was music: one friend composed a song and many others seized the opportunity to contribute their skills and love.
This video shows friendship at its best.

(Go here to watch a larger version of it)

Winter home dialogues (5)

HE
We can put three people on the couch

SHE
The couch is lower than a dinner chair.

HE
So?

SHE
You are embarrassed to serve your guests wine for less than fifteen euros a bottle, but you don’t mind seating them on a couch?

HE
It’s an easy solution. We don’t have eight chairs.

SHE
Why don’t we buy some foldable ones? They are cheaper than a bottle of wine.

HE
It’s not about the money.

SHE
Then what is it? You have principles
regarding foldable chairs?

HE
Why do you always need to argue?

SHE
You mean: why don’t I just agree with you to make
your life more simple?

HE
Exactly!

SHE
Well, I guess that’s sort of a principle of mine,
to only agree with someone when I really do.

HE
We can buy two chairs and seat two people on the couch. How about that?

SHE
You’re negotiating now. Good. It seems like a fair offer.
I accept.

HE
It was a stupid idea to have eight people over for dinner.

SHE
I agree.

(We were both proven wrong, though, as we ended up having a great evening.)

Winter home dialogues (4)

SHE
You’re alive!

HE
It’s about as cold as it can get out there, but I have some very good news.

SHE
What?

HE
I bought something special for tonight. Something that’s gonna cure you of your depression. In case you were wondering.

SHE
I was wondering. Extra vitamin D doesn’t seem to help.

HE
No. Vitamin D does not make people write more.

SHE
And your dinner will? I should not have mentioned the word.

HE
What word?

SHE
The one I will not mention anymore.

HE
Naming and acknowledging the problem sometimes cures it.

SHE
I vote for that one!

Winter home dialogues (3)

SHE
How many slices of bread do you want?

HE
How many are you having?

SHE
That shouldn’t matter.

HE
But it does. I don’t want to be a pig.

SHE
You’re not a pig. You couldn’t be one if you tried.

HE
Thanks.

SHE
I say: three.

HE
Three what?

SHE
Slices. We have mustard, tomatoes, avocado and humus.
You want anything else?

HE
I don’t know what’s in the fridge.

SHE
I just told you what’s in the fridge.

HE
Then why do you ask me if I want anything else?

SHE
Here’s your plate and knife. It’s self-service today.

HE
Are you mad?

SHE
Because I don’t make you a sandwich? No. I just don’t feel like it.
And I don’t put enough mustard on them, according to you.

HE
That’s true. But you can just put more. It’s easy.

SHE
I’m not interested.

HE
Not interested in what?

SHE
In learning how to make you your perfect sandwich.
If I get it too right, you’ll never make your own again.

Winter home dialogues (2)

HE
I’m considering buying mushrooms for tonight.
Do you say “Yes, please” or “I really don’t care”?

SHE
Do I have any other options?

HE
Besides mushrooms?

SHE
No. Besides “Yes, please” and “I really don’t care”.

HE
You don’t want mushrooms?

SHE
I didn’t say that.

HE
Then what do you say?

SHE
I say: don’t buy mushrooms for me, but if you’re willing to go out there
in the snow to get some, I will eat them.

Winter home dialogues (1)

HE
How is it out there?

SHE
Dark

HE
Dark?

SHE
Dark and cold. And wet of course.

HE
Anything else?

SHE
Did I mention it was cold? Freezing really.
And it’s rather sad as well, if you have to know.

HE
Sad.

SHE
Yes. Dark, cold, wet and sad. That’s the world out there.
For the moment.

HE
Okay. Thanks for the rapport.
What are we having for lunch?