Trouble at the ICA

Is this the first stage of a wider crisis in the arts?

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, founded in 1948, has promoted some of the most exciting arts movements of the postwar period, so the news last month of its financial crisis was disappointing, to say the least.

The crisis, a deficit of £600,000 that will result in redundancies for a third of the ICA's 60-strong staff and could even lead to its closure, has been explained as an unfortunate consequence of the recession. But the art critic J J Charlesworth, writing in the cultural journal Mute, argues there was chronic mismanagement of the organisation under its artistic director, Ekow Eshun.

In particular, he identifies a reliance on corporate sponsorship -- which evaporated after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 -- to bring in revenue:

Under Eshun, the ICA went from an income of just over £3.75 million in 2005 to just over £5m by 2008 . . . Such large increases were achieved by a new sponsorship-led policy, hiring new development and marketing staff tasked with developing high-profile sponsorship events that prioritised the ICA "brand" as a whole, rather than supporting any individual programming department. Not surprisingly, the ICA's wage bill in the period ballooned, from £1.75m in 2005 to £2.5m in 2008, although the ICA's accounts report an increase in average staff head count of only 13. The number of staff paid more than £50,000 rose from three to ten in that period.

Charlesworth is particularly scathing of Eshun, a former style magazine editor who believes the ICA's future lies in associating with celebrity artists -- "because our audience believes they are cool", as he put it in a recent strategy document -- rather than having curators choose work based on its inherent value.

Eshun, like some commentators, believes the ICA has struggled to be "relevant" in recent years. He puts this down to the decline of "the traditional model of the arts centre with its silo-like programming structure". (One might argue that part of the ICA's problem is the much larger, Tate Modern-shaped silo on the other side of the River Thames, which seems to have no problem attracting audiences to traditional-format exhibitions, talks and events.)

In fact, the problem goes deeper, says Charlesworth. The fortunes of an influential but small London-based arts institution may seem relatively trivial, but he makes a compelling link between the ICA's current crisis and New Labour's wider approach to the arts. In particular, this means the removal from decision-making positions of people with expert knowledge of artistic disciplines, and their replacement with bureaucrats versed in management-speak:

[The] process destroyed the British Council's artistic departments in late 2007, when it disbanded its film, drama, dance, literature, design and visual arts departments, amalgamating them into a single "arts team", organised around bizarre management aphorisms such as "Progressive Facilitation", "Market Intelligence Network", "Knowledge Transfer Function" and "Modern Pioneer".

You may not agree with Charlesworth's analysis (some in the Mute comments thread, aside from the ICA's own press department, clearly don't). But the piece raises serious questions about the future of the arts in a country where money is hard to come by and the prevailing orthodoxy -- that cultural institutions are best run like profit-driven businesses -- has been discredited.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear