The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 7-23 March

The National Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition is a collection of over 50 portraits by Pennsylvanian-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872). His portraits were intended to document the Native American peoples and their way of life. They are regarded as an important and evocative record of America’s indigenous peoples. This will be the first time that they have been shown together outside America since they were returned in the 1850s. 

Opera

Written on Skin. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2, 8 -22 March

Award-winning director Katie Mitchell brings new light to a tale of deception and guile by author Martin Crimp and composer George Benjamin. Written on Skin draws on a 12th-century Occitan legend about a rich lord, Guillaume de Cabestanh, who commissions a book of  illuminations by an artist. The lord hopes the book will immortalise his political power, as well as documenting a sense of domestic order embodied by his obedient wife Agnes. The process of creating the book is the catalyst for his wife's rebellion. After a first successful attempt at seduction, Agnes uses her new found intimacy with the illuminator to modify the content of the book, forcing the husband, in a final act of provocation, to see her as she really is. Themes of passion, violence and love are given a lick of contemporary paint as the drama unfolds under the gaze of angels who watch over the stage. 

Film

Kinoteka, 11th Polish Film Festival. Various Locations (London, Liverpool, Belfast, Edinburgh) 7- 17 March

This week sees the 11th edition of Polish film festival, Kinoteka taking place in a number of locations in the UK. This year, along with a mix of films by fresh and established directors, Kinoteka will be hosting free film workshops for participants of all ages. These workshops include sessions for writers and directors, and animation workshops for children aged between 10 and 14. A brand new short film competition, held in conjunction with the festival, seeks entries from UK filmmakers inspired by Roman Polanski. 

Theatre

This House. National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 May 

“This country is being kept alive on aspirin, when what it needs is electric bloody shock therapy”

The year is 1974. The location, the House of Commons. The UK faces an economic crisis and a hung parliament. In parliament there reigns a culture hostile to co-operation, where party votes are won or lost by the slenderest margins and fist fights in the Commons bars are a regular occurrence. James Graham’s This House pares down politics to the realities of behind-the-scenes horsetrading.  This House examines some of the main issues facing the Wilson and Callaghan governments up to the vote of no confidence in March 1979. 

Native Americans are the subject of the George Catlin exhibition at the NPG
GETTY IMAGES/LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION
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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt