State of the arts

Arts Council England's annual conference sold the creative industries short.

State of the arts conference, 14 February, The Lowry, Manchester

Organised by Arts Council England (ACE) in partnership with the BBC, this disappointingly anodyne conference was an exercise in command, control and public relations. Billed as the annual opportunity for the arts sector to debate the principal challenges and contexts facing the arts, it was an over-engineered day of empty rhetoric that managed to valorise artists while simultaneously patronising them. It avoided all formal mention of the quite difficult reality in which most arts organisations are operating, and made no attempt to engage the sector in honest dialogue that might lead to decisive action.

The triumvirate of Alan Davey, Liz Forgan and Ed Vaizey opening the conference (respectively ACE Chief Executive, ACE Chair and Culture Minister) didn't so much as paper over the cracks as appear in complete denial that there are any. In contrast to the barbed exchanges at the 2011 conference, Arts Council England and the DCMS don't just appear to have reached détente, but an entente cordiale, with Liz Forgan calling Ed Vaizey "our national Valentine". Really? Not mine. One can only assume that there are delicate negotiations taking place behind closed doors, probably involving the 50% administration cuts that ACE is being required to make.

Challenged by chair-for-the-day Kirsty Wark over the falling number of applicants to university arts courses, Alan Davey pledged to "watch" the situation. It was a response typical of the wishy-washy mush that was spoken by our most senior arts policy makers.

It was left to curator Sally Lai, who brought up the controversial issue of visas for international artists, and playwright David Edgar to be the heroic dissenting voices from the stage in the morning keynote panel discussion. But it was Edgar's excellent essay "Looking back, moving forwards" that properly contextualised the arts, and key policy debates within the arts - paternalism v participation, instrumentalism v populism, excellence and access - that was the highlight of the day. How much more effective it would have been to hear this presentation in the morning, contributing to the tone and structure of the day. Woefully, it was timetabled for 5.15 pm, the last item on the agenda.

The delegates I spoke to felt that the value of the day lay in the networking, rather than the quality of debate. Many thought there was genuine value and quality in some of the breakout sessions, but "I haven't heard anything I didn't already know" was a common refrain. For the most part delegates appeared accepting of this. "What else can you expect from the Arts Council?" said one person to me. Well actually, a lot more. I think that ACE is a far better organisation than this, and the people within it more intelligent and expert than they were allowed to show. Additionally, ACE expects excellence from its funded organisations, and judges them on this, with consequences; it is only fair that the sector should be able to expect quality and excellence from ACE.

But more importantly, I take great exception to the sector being pushed to take such a cynical position. This event happens once a year. The majority of delegates have been working flat-out for many months, and took a day plus travel time out of their very busy schedules, and paid to attend. Aren't they entitled to expect more from our country's great cultural project? Some honesty and integrity, for example, which are surely affordable even in a time of austerity? Anything less not only patronises but also insults the audience. After all, integrity is the bedrock value for most of us working in the publicly funded arts sector. It's what drives us, and it is what drives the making of great art, yes, for everyone - as the ACE ten-year plan is so keen for us to do.

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem