Gender Inequality Within Literary Prize Culture – article for VIDA

Prizes aren’t everything. But for literary writers in a world growing less literary, they just might be. Ivor Indyk states that literary prizes function ‘as the last bastion in this world for the literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace.’[1] Which is why it is all the more pertinent that we begin to address the issue of gender within these awards.

Although women read more than men and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are vastly overlooked for prizes in comparison to male authors. A recent proliferation of data on women in the literary arts has provided remarkable insight into current trends. In a 2015 study, novelist Nicola Griffith (Hild, Ammonite) looked at 15 years worth of data from a few top literary prizes. She found that fiction written by women about women won hardly any prizes, and fiction by women about men fared a little better. Books by men about men were miles ahead.

[2]I did my own quick study of the most lucrative prizes for literary novels in the UK over the last decade and found that men had won 94 of them whilst women scraped around two thirds of that at 64 (and that’s mainly because the list included the Bailey’s Prize for Women).

What is causing this disparity? Author Kamila Shamsie explains: ‘Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes, which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success.’[3]

So what are the reasons for this gender bias and what we can do for a more equal future?

Before I began my research I was fairly optimistic: good news about female literary writers kept appearing and it seemed like they were finally being recognised for not only writing good fiction but for setting new standards for the rest. The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, brought about in response to the sexism of the (rather appropriately titled) Man Booker Prize, has had a big role in bringing them to our attention. The judges have been consistently good at awarding experimental authors whose novels resist the boundaries of contemporary fiction. In 2015, Ali Smith’s How to be Both won the prize for exploring ‘our humanity with the most beautiful poetic prose’[4] and the previous year saw Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, take the prize for dazzling the judges with an ‘unconscious railing against the world.’[5] Last year, Lisa McInerney blew the judges away with her less experimental but certainly uncompromising debut, The Glorious Heresies.

The Costa Book Award 2016 shortlist was dominated by female writers. And although only four years old, The Goldsmiths Prize has been awarded to women for two of those years: Ali Smith and Eimear McBride for the same books as The Women’s Prize and perhaps for the same reason: in Chair Judge Blake Morrison’s words, ‘the Goldsmiths prize for fiction has a different agenda: to reward and celebrate the new.’[6]

A similar development is the growing trend in ‘avant-garde chick-lit.’ The female experience is often relegated to the realm of ‘chick-lit’ and women therefore have to partake in a kind of psychic transvestism in order to read good art. ‘Avant-garde chick-lit’ is an antidote to this, celebrating the feminine experience and all its ‘insistently girly features’ using experimental techniques.[7] It is possible this has come about as an offshoot of the growth of ‘middlebrow’ literature in recent decades: initially used as a derogatory term by modernists to describe the watering down of high-brow culture, it has been reclaimed in recent years by postmodernists whose works are typified by the blending of high and low culture.[8] As with middlebrow art, ‘avant-garde chick-lit’ is more prevalent in the US where novels such as Chris Kraus’s I love Dick paved the way for the likes of Miranda July, Lena Dunham and Alexandra Kleeman. But it’s starting to creep into the UK mainstream too with TV series such as Fleabag and Catastrophe at the fore.

On closer inspection, it seems women still have a long way to go for equality within literary prize culture and my earlier assertions begin to lose some of their sheen. Is a prize solely for women really a good thing? Nicola Griffith points out, the Bailey’s Prize could turn into a prison, becoming the only prize women win.[9] And whilst it’s great that the Goldsmith’s Prize was awarded to two female writers, couldn’t they have picked women who hadn’t already won many of the prizes that year? There doesn’t seem to be such a wealth of female prize-winners as there are male. Equally, McInerney may have won the Bailey’s last year, but she has said, she was often told ‘how “male” it was, and that it was “no wonder its jacket sported quotes from male writers.’”[10] This is not surprising. According to an article by Natalie Kon-Yu, ‘more often than not, when a woman wins a major literary award, she wins for writing like a male writer, for writing about men, or for setting her work in an unmistakably masculine environment.’[11]

Adversely, although the avant-garde chick-lit movement is a very interesting one, its feminist stance is still marketed in a very girly way.[12] Vanity Fair embedded its discussion of Kleeman’s book with an interview about eye make-up, and Vogue followed her through the cosmetics aisle of a local pharmacy. Chris Kraus’s seminal text has recently been turned into a rom-com starring Kevin Bacon as the eponymous ‘Dick.’

Perhaps my hunch was wrong. Thankfully, in the last few years some have recognised the need for more data and less hunch regarding women in the literary arts, and have started collating it. One such person is Griffith, who said she does not believe there is ‘male’ or ‘female’ writing. ‘There are male and female writers, and female and male characters, but there’s no such thing as a ‘male’ book,’ she said. ‘I am wary of suggesting to women that we must write about women; I believe all writers should be free to follow their own path. However, I also believe many women find women less interesting to write about because they have absorbed the cultural lesson that women are less interesting, period.’

Danuta Kean agrees but admits, ‘There is a perception among publishers and others in the literary establishment of writing by women that denigrates the subject matter. So men can write about the home and it is universal, but women doing so becomes “domestic.” This is sexist and fails to recognise that the home is the crucible for all personalities.’

If we have established there is no difference between male and female writing, what is causing the bias towards men within literary prize culture? Kean questions the bias, noting there has always been bias towards white male writers ‘because there is still a perception that this group speaks for all society.’ She also noted that many believe women will buy books written by and about men, but men won’t buy books written by and about women. ‘The bias in literary prizes reflects what is published, entered and promoted in the literary genre,’ she said.

Part of this promotion includes reviews–women also aren’t reviewed as much as men—and the presence of women working in publishing–men have started taking the top jobs again; literary publishers who are more likely to submit books for literary prizes and reviews take on more men than women;[13] and books by men are more likely to be submitted for prizes. Sarah Churchwell, a judge for the 2014 Man Booker Prize summed it up: ‘We read what publishers submit to us … [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.’[14]

In an interview she did with The Guardian, Griffith argues agglomeration is partly to blame for this regressive behaviour: ‘The publishing landscape has changed (corporate ownership, consolidation, big chains). This led to scarcity – fewer independent publishers and editors with individual taste, fewer authors being promoted by their publishers, fewer unique buyers at fewer retailers, fewer review slots. Scarcity leads to conservative behaviour.’[15]

The good news is small publishers in the UK are starting to win prizes and many in the US are rushing to women’s aid. Dorothy, YesYes Books, and Graywolf Press have made it their mission to publish more women.[16] Similarly, the #readwomen movement inspired many publishers and publications in the UK to publish and review more women and Kamila Shamsie even proposed 2018 be the year of publishing only women.[17]

So what else needs to happen for a more equal future? Kean said everything needs to be challenged, ‘We need to challenge the way that literature by women is covered… the way books are reviewed and marketed… the idea of women as ancillary rather than main characters and the idea that home settings in literature mean parochial.’ Griffith agreed, ‘Nothing will change until we begin to dismantle [culturally erected barriers]. This must be tackled simultaneously from multiple directions: at home, in the media, at school, at work. All of it, all at once. I think none of this will happen until people begin to collect data at every level and then testing the variables. Without understanding what the inflection points in this process are we can’t nudge the system with any real hope of positive change.’

Despite how it may look, women still do not have a room of their own. They are still struggling against a deeply ingrained patriarchy and present trends indicate that much of the gender inequality is down to unconscious bias happening at every level. We cannot deny what is happening in schools, in agencies, in publishing houses, in the media, in shops, in people’s homes. We need to surrender the illusion that any of us are objective, rational beings because 80-90 percent of our cognition is unconscious.

This is ironic considering a literary novel is nothing if not an objective, multi-sided depiction of one narrative, full of stereotypes and their counterexamples. Literature requires that we depart with our subjectivity–our ego–temporarily in order to inhabit someone else’s. However, my experience and research show that women are better at this than men. No, not better. More accustomed to doing this. Just as BAME, LGBT and disabled people are accustomed to having to do this because the world is saturated with art by white, able-bodied men.

Perhaps all literary prize judges should judge blindly. Perhaps agents, editors, publishers, and booksellers should all judge blindly. It may not be a stretch to ask that children at school read blindly, teachers teach blindly, buyers buy blindly, until the whole world becomes blind. And perhaps when we finally open our eyes again, we’ll see all the clearer.

[1]“Literary Prizes | The Cult of the Middlebrow |.” Sydney Review of Books. 03 May 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/4-september-2015-literary-prizes

[2]“Books about Women Don’t Win Big Awards: Some Data.” Nicola Griffith. 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://nicolagriffith.com/2015/05/26/books-about-women-tend-not-to-win-awards/

[3]Shamsie, Kamila. “Kamila Shamsie: Let’s Have a Year of Publishing Only Women – a Provocation.” Point of View. Guardian News and Media, 05 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/05/kamila-shamsie-2018-year-publishing-women-no-new-books-men

[4] “2015 Winner.” BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/reading-room/news/ali-smith-wins-the-2015-baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction

[5] “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.” BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/reading-room/book/girl-half-formed-thing

[6] Morrison, Blake. “Blake Morrison on the Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction: ‘There Are Still Things to Say That Haven’t Been Said Before’” Point of View. Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/11/goldsmiths-prize-mike-mccormack

[7] “Chick Lit Meets the Avant-Garde.” Public Books. 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.publicbooks.org/chick-lit-meets-the-avant-garde/

[8] Cardiff, D. “Mass Middlebrow Laughter: The Origins of BBC Comedy.” Media, Culture & Society 10.1 (1988): 41-60. Print. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/016344388010001004

[9] Fallon, Claire. “Books About Women Don’t Win Major Fiction Prizes. How Can We Change That?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/02/women-literary-prizes_n_7487556.h

[10] http://www.lisamcinerney.com/single-post/2016/05/29/Thoughts-on-the-Baileys-Prize-1

[11] “On Sexism in Literary Prize Culture.” Literary Hub. 15 July 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://lithub.com/on-sexism-in-literary-prize-culture/

[12] “Chick Lit Meets the Avant-Garde.” Public Books. 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.publicbooks.org/chick-lit-meets-the-avant-garde/

[13] Crum, Maddie. “Are Book Publishers To Blame For Gender Discrimination?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/book-gender_n_1324560.html

[14]Shamsie, Kamila. “Kamila Shamsie: Let’s Have a Year of Publishing Only Women – a Provocation.” Point of View. Guardian News and Media, 05 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/05/kamila-shamsie-2018-year-publishing-women-no-new-books-men

[15]Flood, Alison. “Books about Women Less Likely to Win Prizes, Study Finds.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/01/books-about-women-less-likely-to-win-prizes-study-finds

[16] Calvin, Aaron. “How Small Presses Are Welcoming More Women Into Publishing.” Pacific Standard. Pacific Standard, 21 Dec. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. https://psmag.com/news/how-small-presses-are-welcoming-more-women-into-publishing

[17] Shamsie, Kamila. “Kamila Shamsie: Let’s Have a Year of Publishing Only Women – a Provocation.” Point of View. Guardian News and Media, 05 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/05/kamila-shamsie-2018-year-publishing-women-no-new-books-men

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St Patrick’s Day at Honky Tonk, Chelsea – Review for West London Living Magazine

In celebration of the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, we headed down to Honky Tonk for some St Paddy’s Day feasting and drinking. However, but for a small sign outside indicating ‘2 for 1 St Patrick’s Day cocktails’, nothing about the evening remotely celebrated the life of old St Paddy. There were a few revellers strewn across the bar being entertained by the lively bar man, but other than that the place was pretty much empty. We were led to the dining area (which seemed a shame as the lighting, decor and general atmosphere was not nearly as enticing as that of the bar area) and got comfy in our booth with some bottles of Brooklyn. This was almost pleasant until we noticed the unbearable tunes gurgling out of the speakers directly above us.

Presently, the waitress came over and told us about the menu as well as some truths about her sex life, which we appreciated. For the starter, I had the chicken quesadilla (£6.75) which consisted of flour tortillas stuffed with home smoked chicken, Applewoood cheese, peppers and onions, served with fresh guacamole. Admittedly, I ordered them last time I was there and feel guilty for not trying new things but they’re just so damn good. The bf had the nachos (£6.95) covered in cheddar and Applewood cheese, homemade guacamole, salsa and sour cream. This was an equally enormous and delicious starter and can be chickened or beefed for a small fee. We paired this with a bottle of Argentinian Malbec which claimed to have ‘violet aromas and purity of raspberry and red fruit, with a kick of white pepper’. But it was less like a kick than a kind of limp leg wrapping itself around my own.

For the main, I tried the veggie option – halloumi burger with roasted aubergine, peppers, flat mushroom, lettuce, tomato, burger sauce, grilled halloumi cheese and guacamole on a brioche bun, served with a side of rosemary fries (£9.95). I thought this would be delicious because I love halloumi and didn’t think it was possible for the king of cheese to taste bad. I was wrong. The halloumi was way too thick and undercooked and I ended up leaving half of it. The bf’s choice was a lot better than mine: the Honky Tonk Burger – 7oz of rare breed Longhorn beef, topped with cheese, bacon, caramelized onion, guacamole, salsa, baby gem lettuce, tomato and burger sauce, all in a brioche bun and served with a side of rosemary fries (£12.95) – put him in a glorious food coma and almost gave him hallucinations. When he came to, he said he enjoyed the burger and its accompaniments very much but found the brioche bun pretentious and unsatisfying, merely serving to remind him of all the other less pretentious but tastier buns he could be eating. (He does have a weird vendetta against brioche though…) In my opinion, Honky Tonk’s mediocre American burgers are a bit over-priced for what they are. The starters and sides are much more interesting.

As we didn’t really want to stick around for dessert, we scampered pretty sharpish into the night, bringing the rest of the wine with us. All though we enjoyed banter with the bar staff and the starters were good, we don’t mean to return any time soon.

Let Them Eat Cake – Article for The International Times

If, of late, you have walked down a London high street on a sunny afternoon as I have, you will have been struck – and perhaps disturbed – by the multitudinous cafés and restaurants that have sprouted up like Hydra’s heads over the last few years. You will also have staggered up and down the vertiginous high street peering desperately into the windows to find some kind of variable on which to base your culinary decision only to fall by the wayside, defeated by the homogenous little tables, fashionable Middle-Eastern menus, exposed brick-work, delicious mothers and their well-dressed babies.

Unless, of course, you are one of the 19 million Britons who eat out at least once a week (compared with 17 million in 2013), in which case you are probably wondering what my problem is and why I am being so dramatic. And perhaps you would be right to wonder this. The restaurant industry is not entirely bad. It is a luxury which, if abolished, would significantly darken this Fair Isle. It has brought us dishes from all over the world, allowed passionate chefs to share their creations, and provided us with a setting for merriment with our loved ones.

My problem lies with the cost of the industry. Nowhere else in Europe is eating out so disproportionate to one’s wage or to eating at home. Often it is fairly equal abroad. Yet economists – employed by banks – use capitalist jargon to positively assess the country’s well-being based on its spending habits: ‘The UK Expenditure Index continues to point to a healthy rate of growth in the UK… This highlights the on-going transition of increased consumer confidence that has been evident in recent months to higher volumes of expenditure in the UK… The research finds that despite tightening purse strings, consumers are reluctant to give up eating out…’ Blah blah blah.

We the consumers are diagnosed as happy, healthy, confident people because we are spending. The fact that we are spending more on food and drink than ever before, despite being poorer, does not trigger any correlation in their minds: people are not spending more on food and drink addictions because they are poorer, they are simply determined to eat themselves out of the recession – for the good of the colony. Hear, hear! Growth, growth, growth! But Mr Economist, what are we growing into? It doesn’t matter! Spend, spend, spend! Eat, eat, eat! And then when you’re too fat to go to work, we’ll strip you of your benefits.

There are many other ways of boosting the economy that would be far more effective and far less farcical. Banks could be regulated and bankers paid less, for one. But, sadly, they would rather pay economists to tell us what a good job we’re doing in driving the economy than be told that their bonuses, speculative bubbles, money printing and ‘borrowing’ is what got us into this mess and could they please get us out.

According to these economists, restaurants also ‘create jobs’. This is one of the most absurd and surreal phrases to be bandied about over the last few years. Yes they create jobs – low paid, demoralising jobs for people who don’t have any other option so that the consumer can be lured in to spend all the money she doesn’t have because her job doesn’t pay her enough, whilst the owners are left with barely anything after all their expenses anyway. Again, these are not issues in the rest of Europe where staff are paid enough to live on – in Norway, hospitality wages are upwards of £12 an hour.

If these jobs are not useful to anyone, why create them? The more we work, the less time we have to cook, the less time we have to cook, the more we have to eat out, the more we have to eat out, the more we have to work – and the cycle goes on, spinning faster and faster and more and more extravagantly until it grows and grows into oblivion. We’ve created an entirely pointless industry so that there is a ‘free flow of money’ but none of those involved ever profit from it. It’s just flowing in the wind, and as Orwell once said, ‘political language is designed […] to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ It all smacks of Catch 22’s Milo Minderbinder’s M&M Enterprises which essentially grows out of nothing and benefits no-one but himself, yet he convinces the American people that: ‘What’s good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country.’

Two things that are symptomatic of the decline of an empire: huge disparity between rich and poor and a growing obsession with food, resulting – bizarrely – in the worship of celebrity chefs. These two things occurred during the fall of the Roman, Ottoman and Spanish empires, and now perhaps the West’s as we try to find meaning in something – anything. But as political analyst, David Morgan, put it, ‘you can never get enough of what you don’t need.’ The disparity is what drives the obsession and, as with everything, stuffing it with more cake is not going to make the problem go away.

Interview with Darren Cullen about his exhibition and short film Action Man: Battlefield Casualties – for London Exhibitions magazine

 

Action-Man-Film---Darren-Cullen-and-Price-JamesMany of us, I’m sure, will have known a young man who having left school with poor grades, few prospects, or disillusionment with the academia-driven, non-physical nature of education and the work place, decided to join the army – a very appealing option for those who crave the discipline, physical training, and financial support that comes with it. For such a boy, the army may be his best choice by a long shot.

But is it actually his choice? By exposing the sinister and heady mix of military recruitment and advertising, Darren Cullen’s latest exhibition Action Man: Battlefield Casualties hinges upon this question. Directed by Price James and narrated by Matt Berry, the film is a series of spoof adverts selling Action Man battle casualties, complete with real life funerals, drinking problems and lost limbs. Having worked closely with Veterans for Peace on this project, I ask him how the project came about: “A couple of years ago I made an anti-army recruitment comic, sarcastically called ‘Join the Army’, which had as part of it a poster for these Action Man: Battlefield Casualties toys. Through the release of that book I met Veterans for Peace UK and began talking to the director Price James about turning the toys into full-blown fake adverts.”

The military and advertising being a pervading theme within his work, I ask him what these issues mean to him: “When I was at art school I thought I wanted to be a copywriter. But the more I studied advertising as a subject and learned about how it manipulates people’s desires and the broader psychological effects of consumerism, the less I wanted to add to that misery. I changed to a fine art course and started making work about the insidious nature of advertising and the methods it uses to make us act against our own interests. Army recruitment advertising had always stuck out to me as a particularly nasty example of the form. With recruitment ads, the contrast between the exciting, fun-packed commercial and the bitter, gruelling reality of the ‘product’ is at its most extreme. If you’re taken in by most ads the worst that will happen is you spend weeks or months working to buy something you don’t need, but being duped by an army advert is potentially fatal.”

Voicing the concern that, although undeniably poignant and funny, the film could be viewed as provocative and potentially insulting, Darren explains: “We tried very hard to make sure that these films were sympathetic to the lot of the soldier. It was never intended to ridicule them or their suffering, and I’m glad to have heard back that the vast majority of responses from soldiers, both serving and discharged, is that they think the films tell the truth. Some have disagreed with the tone, but overall, I think they are the ones to ask if the film is truthful or not. If you’re offended by the truth then you should take that up with the institutions who make these situations a reality. The only people I ever seem to offend with my anti-army work has been civilians. They think they’re standing up for soldiers, but soldiers don’t need their honour defending by EDL supporters on Facebook. Add that to the fact that servicemen and women tend to have a much darker sense of humour than your average civilian. But overall my response to those who take offence has been that nothing I have ever made has been more offensive or horrific than the reality it is supposed to satirise. In the films we have children playing with toys which are bleeding to death in the desert, but on no possible scale is that worse than the army taking actual children and sending them off to bleed to death on their eighteenth birthday.”

True. However, speaking of the tone, one might argue it is slightly at odds with Veterans for Peace’s dialogical approach, which includes empathy workshops for kids and peace talks between veterans and victims. Asking whether he feels his work, and perhaps satire in a broader sense, can achieve this, Darren argues: “Empathy is essential in every aspect of life, but when we deal with violent institutions like the armed forces or the police, it’s difficult to maintain empathy with the people on the other side. To continue imagining how you could have turned out like them, and how they could have been like you, if it wasn’t for both of you going down several dozen different forks in the road. Since I was a kid I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be a soldier in a war zone, the boredom and the horror of it, the unbearable noise and filth and pain. I think if I’d made an anti-army recruitment comic without trying to empathise with the people who have themselves been recruited, then it would have come across as vapid and spiteful. The people who had been there would not have identified with the comic, and I wouldn’t be working with Veterans for Peace today. With satire I think there is an opportunity to win an argument without your opponent even realising it. If you can make someone laugh at the absurdity of a situation, then on some level they have to agree with you.”

During the exhibition I thought how great it would be if the film were to attract masses of attention because war is something that really is not talked about enough – in the media, schools or even homes. And adolescents need to be better informed. With this in mind, I asked Darren who the exhibition would ideally reach: “The establishment knows that whether it’s recruitment into the military or into the capitalist system in general, the battle is always for the hearts and minds of the next generation. Which is why corporations and governments put so much effort into youth orientated propaganda, like the Ministry of Defence’s toy range, or its military cadet programs. I’d like to think that these films might be watched by some kid who thought that life in the military looked cool and instead help them see the other, more brutal sides of military service. To take the shine off those glossy recruitment brochures, even if just for a few minutes.”

I came away from this exhibition with a sense of the artist’s regular (mental) transposition into society’s underbelly and his extreme empathy with the victims whose reality he exposes: the victims that army recruitment adverts do not mention and that the Veterans for Peace’s empathy workshops help put into focus. As well as being for the potential victims, this exhibition (as well as his others) condenses the absurdity of the world into a sharp, quick hypodermic message for those who don’t want to take the time to think about these issues – for those whose imaginations have become stagnant in their refusal to empathise. The powerful tend to fall under this banner and, until they manage to catch up with the rest of postmodernity and develop three dimensional narratives, perhaps art must continue to make people see. Which leads me onto my final question for Darren, which is: “Why art?” To which he responded, helpfully: “Because colours.”

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime at The Wellcome Collection – Review for London Exhibitions magazine

forensics_s2

Taking as its pivot Edmond Locard’s Exchange Principle that ‘every contact leaves a trace’, this exhibition explores the history, science and art of forensics, moving from the crime scene, to the morgue and the laboratory, to the search, and finally the court room. It combines video clips of experts explaining how their field of forensics work, alongside brutal homicidal evidence, historical artefacts, art works, installations and films that reveal the human side of forensics.

The first room, ‘The Crime Scene’, is a dark and eerie one, foregrounded by an up-lighted doll’s house and an old stained tile floor. The former artefact is the ‘Nutshell Study of Unexplained Death, Case No. 20’, one of the miniature scale models of crime scenes built by Frances Glessner Lee in the 1940s in order to provide investigators with a three-dimensional, alternative angle on the crime scene. They seem to contain and shrink the overwhelming information and emotion of what has occurred. Around the same time, criminologists adopted the ‘God’s eye view’ method of photographing murder scenes using a very high tripod, which had the same function of distancing and detangling the criminologist from the crime, thereby allowing him to see better. Partly to satiate the public’s thirst for the macabre, but also in line with a growing tendency towards realism, this method was quickly adopted by newspaper reporters. The latter artefact is the patch of floor where artist Teresa Margolles’ friend was murdered in his studio in Mexico. Like many of the other works and historical artefacts displayed, this is a visceral piece of evidence as well as art and, therefore, entertainment. As such, my conflicting feelings of fascination and horror made me feel voyeuristic – a relationship alluded to in the introduction to the exhibition as ‘our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection’. Perhaps the popularity of the exhibition is itself testament to this.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of death as spectacle is picked up in the second room – ‘The Morgue’. From the French morguer, meaning ‘to peer’, the word originates from the days when bodies were laid out at the Paris Morgue for loved ones to see but which became hugely popular as something of a public spectacle. This room was more stomach turning than the last. A painting of a blue face with a strange red texture emerging from the mouth like a bloody sponge depicts the rapid post mortem of a man who fell from scaffolding and was impaled on a post through the rectum. Whilst on the other side a cabinet of mangled remains show you your meaty mortality first hand: a stabbed heart behaves the same way as a piece of chicken and a beaten skull cracks like marble.

A dark corridor sliced intermittently with shafts of light opens up onto the next room where one is confronted by a tall mortuary fridge, its dull buzz the only sound in the room. Entitled Ab uno disce omnes (a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid meaning ‘from one learn all’) Sejla Kemeric’s installation presents the viewer with (currently) 85 hours of an ever-growing collection of data on the search for the lost victims of the Bosnian War. Entering the fridge is a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience. I felt as though I shouldn’t be there. Again, this feeling was partly due to my position as voyeur, but it was also due to a feeling of being buried alive, surrounded by the stories of the dead. Kameric’s work is a living, evolving monument to these victims and the families and loved ones who are still searching for them. Finally stepping out of the fridge, I turned the corner to find a screening of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light. Beautiful and devastating, the film depicts Chile’s Atacama Desert post-Pinochet: while astrologists look to the sky, the families of the ‘disappeared’ look to the ground using forensic techniques they have developed over many years of searching to unearth their remains.

Forensic science suggests cold, clinical examination of death. But to misuse Locard’s earlier statement, it seems that all these scientific inventions for reading the dead also leave human traces: from the 1481 ‘Garden of Health’ book depicting brightly coloured naïve drawings of what happens to our bodies after death; to the painstakingly delicate Nutshell doll houses of the 1940’s; to Šejla Kamerić’s vast, growing collection of data that asks whether it is still possible in this age of information to impose a single viewpoint on a crime. Science and humanity is a relationship nurtured by the exhibition’s focus on both sides. But it is also one that the viewer is haunted by in everyday life – it is the reason we are drawn to the anatomy of crime and the dark side of human nature. Our fascination stems from the same need as forensic science: the need ‘to make sense of profoundly shocking acts of violence.’

[All quotes taken from the Wellcome Collection’s Forensics booklet.]

Rubens and his Legacy, The Royal Academy – Review for London Exhibitions magazine

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and her Dwarf, 1606
Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Maria Grimaldi and her Dwarf, 1606

In his day, Rubens – the Homer of painting – had something for everyone: for France, eroticism and poetry; for Germany, vitality and pathos; for Spain, the drama of his religious works; and for England, elegant portraits and bucolic landscapes. As such, the RA’s thematic, rather than chronological, display of the works suited the prolific artist. The exhibition took up nine rooms, which after the introductory room, were arranged by theme: poetry, love, elegance, power, compassion, violence, lust and finally his legacy. The last was represented by artists he has influenced, including Van Dyck, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Picasso, Klimt, Lucian Freud, Bacon, Sarah Lucas and DeKooning (who claims, ‘flesh was the reason oil was invented.’) Sadly though, these were underplayed and, next to the breadth of Rubens’ works on display, appeared as an after-thought.

Making my way through the hordes of people gathered around the incredibly ornate paintings, my eye fell upon a small drawing. It was beautiful. The subtle exaggerations that occur in the curvature of the line would have made the characters look almost cartoon if it were not for the fact that everything was anatomically, gravitationally and spatially correct. There was a kind of humdrum normality to his drawings that contrasted starkly with the grandiose paintings they developed into. The drawing that stayed with me most was the study he did for the painting ‘The Fall of the Damned’ depicting flabby gluttons intertwined – snake-like – with burley blue devils as they are delivered to Hell. Nearby, Klimt’s ‘St Cecilia’, homage to Rubens’ painting of the same name, evokes the freedom of these drawings: thick, free, gestural brush strokes that are somehow truer to life, do not mould but indicate a breast.

As much as I enjoyed this, I could not shift a feeling of discomfort. The first wall of the Poetry room tells us that part of Rubens’ legacy comes from his ability to ‘elevate nature above the commonality’. (The Old Master once said, ‘my passion comes from the heavens, not from earthly musings’). I believe my anxiety henceforth was whether this was a worthy feat and why, knowing what we know now about the importance of exposing society’s underbelly through art, we still care. However, the knowledge of his influence upon the fore mentioned artists – who first showed the world the revolutionary power of art – urged me on.

I recently went to the RA to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition, a clinical exhibit saturated in white light which treated the pieces as artefacts that had been taken from their home in order to teach us something. This was a very different experience to now wandering through the Royal Academy which – bathed in what John Milton calls ‘a dim religious light’ – had undergone an almost church-like transformation in its worship of Rubens’ paintings, his art feels completely at home here. As the exhibition’s title suggests, here his aesthetic importance is given a shrine that protects it from the burden of history. ‘In front of Rubens,’ Ingres once spat, ‘put on blinkers like those a horse wears.’ So on I went with my excavation to find anything that would help anchor him to time and thereby find out who Rubens really was.

Finally, on the very last wall I unearthed the piece of gold that was to reveal him to me: his comparison to Warhol in his ‘preoccupation with spectacle, celebrity, sex and death’. Like Warhol, he was a business man and a devout Catholic who, arguably, cared little for the ‘commonality’: a Counter Reformation artist loved for the pathos of his work, Rubens and his studio-come-factory of artists was often commissioned to produce religious paintings for churches which were later reproduced and disseminated throughout the Spanish colonies in order to inspire religious fervour in the indigenous peoples. ‘Christ on the Stone’ is one pretty horrific example. Like Warhol, he was obsessed with celebrity: named ‘Rubens the prince of painters and painter of princes’ due to his predilection for depicting the super-rich, wives of ‘immensely rich bankers’ dripping with jewels pose for portraits, whilst his vast painting ‘The Garden of Love’ celebrates courtship among the wealthy and fashionable citizens of Antwerp. And, as an aside, both his and Warhol’s works are some of the most expensive in the world – the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ going for $101.4 million in 2002.

My point is not, as William Blake once lyricised, that ‘Rubens was a fool’. I would be a fool to ignore the huge depth and breadth of not only his works but also the themes within them which lay bare a vast and all-encompassing mind that evidently changed art forever. However, I realise now that this exhibition felt uncomfortable because it was a socially blind celebration of Rubens’ lavish art and to display it at austere times like these seemed strange and irrelevant to me – just like those that descended upon it. As Blake says next: ‘And yet you make him master of your School/And give more money for his slobberings’.

The Best Laid Plans of David Cameron

David Cameron visits Jaguar Land Rover

In the run up to the election Sharifa Petersen asks who David Cameron really is and why he hates us so much.

When I saw David Cameron speak in the run up to the 2010 election I asked him whether, if they came into power, his party would stop exploiting third world countries via TNCs and tied aid (to name but a few methods). In response, he belittled me with assumptions of my allegiance to anti-globalists and grotesque spin that confused me more than anything (he seemed to be impersonating a thigh and squeezing an invisible lemon simultaneously) while he ‘explained’ the benefits of big business and John McCain. From this introduction, I understood him to be an inexperienced, confused hypocrite whose ignorance was not to be mistaken for harmlessness: a hubristic man obsessed by money and power can take a country into the darkest most undemocratic recesses and he was about to be elected. I was afraid – very afraid.

Sadly, these fears have become reality. Indeed, Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s new book, Cameron’s Coup, argues he is the most radical British prime minister to date. For the last four years and about nine months, my morning routine of coffee, Radio 4, newspaper, and online updates has been disrupted by my wails and curses as Cameron’s latest ideas on how to use our money and lives roll in. Never before had I experienced a government’s policies so first hand: my mother and sister – both single parents – became some of the first victims of Cameron’s class war as he cut child benefits and introduced childcare vouchers. They were shortly followed by the rest of my siblings, who wanted to go to university but now faced a three-fold debt. Friends of mine came next as squatting became illegal and they were thrown onto the streets. And then there was everyone else: suddenly homeless people were no longer allowed to exist – nor were food banks; job seekers were made to work for multi-billion pound corporations – unpaid; the Immigration Act saw to it that all immigrants’ life-lines were severed; and the recent undemocratic and secret TTIP plan threatens to sell off the NHS, lower food and banking regulations, monitor internet users, restrict public access to pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials, cause increased unemployment, and give trans-national corporations the right to sue governments if their policies cause them a loss of profits – while the new ‘gagging law’ stops anyone from doing anything about it. (He seems to be squeezing in a large number of extremely shitty last minute laws just in case he is slung out in May.)

But who is the man with the plan and why is he destroying the country? David Cameron is the son of stockbroker Ian Cameron and retired Justice of the Peace Mary Fleur, grandson of Sir William Mount 2nd Baronet, descendant of King William IV, and distant cousin of our Queen regent, Elizabeth II. But these sorts of relatives are commonplace in Cameron’s world. As we all know, his childhood took place in the Elysium of all-boys independent schools, archaic punishments, princely pupils, followed by Cannabis and Cocaine at Oxford and Bullingdon club with Boris, all tied up in a neat little bow with a First Class Honours degree – a smooth journey to success. Evidently, he and his Old Boy network that run the country are the rightful winners in a functioning meritocracy where, in his words, ‘those who work hard will be rewarded’.

But Cameron came into power relatively inexperienced: he was a political PR man and then an MP for just four years before becoming Prime Minister. And he said a lot of silly things. Now as he tries to navigate his way through the tides of jellyfish that are his early statements coming back to sting him, rather than stand his ground, he swings franticly between contradictions like the balls on Newton’s Cradle trying to find the centre. Surely he doesn’t think we are stupid enough to take part in a sort of collective amnesia and carry on blindly following him does he? That’s exactly what he thinks. The following are just a few of the examples you may have forgotten. He initially described himself as ‘non-ideological’ and then entered office with the mission of making ‘Tory’ a good word. He denied being a Thatcherite just days after declaring that ‘we’re all Thatcherites now’. He cut arts funding whilst urging the backing of commercial propaganda type productions, such as Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech. As an MP he abstained on a vote allowing same-sex couples to adopt and opposed the repeal of the institutionally homophobic Section 28. But once in power, he legalised gay marriage and apologised for opposing Section 28, proposing to alter the policy of the Conservative Party to reflect his new belief that equality should be taught in British schools – though he has yet to further this proposal. And whilst in Cape Town, I looked on in disgust as Cameron attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral twenty four years after his visit to Apartheid South Africa for the anti-sanction lobby SNI, when Mandela was still in prison. Perhaps Cameron’s tutor, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, summed him up best when he said, ‘I think he is very confused. I’ve read his [Bill of Rights] speech and it’s filled with contradictions. There are one or two good things in it but one glimpses them, as it were, through a mist of misunderstanding’. His heart/ego seems torn between Thatcher’s mythic ideas of citizens of the land, defence of the realm, deeds, friends and foes, and Tony Blair’s politic of the new.

One thing Cameron is certain about is the supreme importance of money. His paternal forebears have a long history in finance. His father Ian was senior partner of the stockbrokers Panmure Gordon. His great-great-grandfather Emile Levita was the director of the Standard Chartered Bank whilst his great-great-grandmother was a descendant of the wealthy Danish Rée family. Cameron himself was a director of Urbium PLC, operator of the Tiger Tiger bar chain – a hell hole I visited once and emerged full of hate for the human race. And his wife Samantha works for the tax-avoiding handbag company Smythson. Inspiring.

Yet all this splendour only strengthens his resolve to tax and starve and beat the poor until they do not want to be poor anymore and strive to ascend to his Elysium instead. But David, whose shoulders will you stand on then? Whose taxes and slave labour and expenditure and free rearing of the next workforce will keep your bubble afloat? Since the Tories came into power, child poverty has risen for the first time; in every £5 adjustment made to public spending, £4 comes from cuts, against £1 made from increases in taxation; and in 2012 taxes were cut for high earners from 50% to 45%. Furthermore, Tory policy-making has created a culture where employers can cut costs by keeping their employees both uncertain and on the poverty line while landlords charge more and more forever and benefits are stripped by £12bn. Whilst writing this, my sister came back from the Jobcentre in a daze reporting that she had been told she was to undergo unpaid work experience for the Jobcentre. Still reeling from the Kafkaesque horror of it all she overheard one of the Job-bots demanding a work experience worker ASAP, to which another replied ‘don’t worry, I’ll get you one by the end of the day’. You couldn’t make it up.

So who is David Cameron and why does he hate us? As I guessed during that first meeting six years ago, he is a confused hypocrite obsessed with money but he does not hate us. It is worse than that – he simply thinks he knows what’s best for us and won’t stop at anything to make his bad ideas manifest.