Too much to bear

Should the latest Turner Prize winner really take the credit for his work? And, as a variety of geri

Issues surrounding repetition and reproduction, recently discussed on this blog, were back in the spotlight this week as the feted avant-garde artist and sometime bear impersonator Mark Wallinger won the 2007 Turner Prize for his piece “State Britain”, a faithful recreation of Brian Haw’s Parliament Square anti-war protest.

 
"It was the best thing that was shown this year, and I don't think I should be humble about it" remarked Wallinger, having been awarded the dependably contentious prize by art collector and arch-Republican Dennis Hopper, of all people, at the Tate Liverpool on Monday.

 
The piece has a certain poignancy, as Haw’s original display of dissenting art was abruptly dismantled in May last year under the auspices of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, and is still under lock and key (although the protest, you’ll be pleased to hear, is still going strong, albeit in a somewhat scaled down form).

But does it matter that Britain’s premier prize for cutting edge art has been won by what is, essentially, a copy of someone else’s work? Although Haw seems pretty chuffed about the whole thing, shouldn’t it really be him and not Wallinger who gets the credit (and the prize money)? Imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, but the win does seem a little strange even by the Turner’s self-consciously wacky standards. Provocative re-contextualisation is all well and good but there comes a point where it’s just too much to bear.  

 
Related:

 
Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” 

Spiked Online argues that Wallinger's work isn't as political as it's cracked up to be. 

Sue Hubbard on the Turner

 
Old Man Rockers (Slight Return)

 
Meanwhile, with the UK concert schedules packed with gigs by musical greybeards like The Who and The Rolling Stones, not to mention the lucrative comeback tours of nineties pop acts, mainstream popular music seems unusually backward looking at present.

The Spice Girls have recently launched their tour, to generally positive, if vaguely lecherous, reviews, and the big reunion gig of the year, Led Zeppelin’s one-off O2 show, is coming up this week. Much hyped,
once postponed, and nearly impossible to get a ticket for, the gig is part of a tribute night to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic records, and will be the first time the surviving members of the band have played together since 1995.

 
Some will dismiss the reunion as an over-hyped nostalgia fest for the band’s legions of gnarly, leather-jacketed acolytes, but their fan base remains large and their influence on the bombastic guitar bands of today, from Muse to the Chili Peppers, is so pronounced that it’s surely churlish to deny them a suitably hard-rockin’ comeback. Likewise, it seems unfair to throw accusations of irrelevance at many of the other old time guitar greats. Bob Dylan, for example, still produces some good tunes and captures the public imagination, and Bruce Springsteen, who comes to the O2 on the 19th December, has reinvented himself as one of the most outspoken and thoughtful critics of the current US administration, as Sarfraz Manzoor will gladly tell you.

 
The more interesting issue is whether the current generation of guitar bands will produce any zeitgeist-defining artists of equal significance to their illustrious predecessors. Innovation certainly isn’t lacking in modern music’s many and varied sub-genres but, of the big rock bands of the day, has anyone really captured the spirit of the times since Radiohead’s ten year old take on pre-millennial angst, “OK Computer”? Which noughties acts will people be coming back to in thirty years time? Coldplay? The Killers? http://www.arcticmonkeys.com/">The Artic Monkeys? Arguably the really interesting stuff is going on in other, more obviously pioneering, genres of music but whatever you think of today’s mainstream rockers, the twenty-first century doesn’t have a Led Zep. Yet.

 
Comings and goings in Brighton and Bethlehem

 
In other news this week, enigmatic graffiti king Banksy took a provocative trip to Bethlehem while the young stars of the upcoming film version of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner were forced to leave Afghanistan fearing tribal reprisals.

 
On the domestic front Rotherham said howdy to Dolly Parton and her rooting-tooting literacy programme, Brighton waved goodbye to homophobic reggae stars and Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu made an impact on the literary scene, picking up the Guardian First book award.

In the coming week you could queue round the block for day tickets to the Donmar’s booked-out Othello, moan about the populist content of Richard and Judy’s Christmas Books Listor relax at home with the latest CD from the Thai Elephant Orchestra. Dave Solider, one of the orchestra’s co-founders, says  “the elephants, they don't give a damn…they just go out there and they do it the way they hear it. They're real artists.” If that’s not musical innovation, then what is?

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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