Saturday 30 June 2012

Bob the Banker

Bob Diamond: Would you Trust this Man?
Villain of the week for the global chattering classes is Bob Diamond, an American banker with an epic string of titles. He is 'Group Chief Executive of Barclays plc’, ‘CE of Corporate & Investment Banking and Wealth Management’, and ‘Executive Director of the Boards of Barclays plc and Barclays Bank plc’.  It reminds me of the Homeric King (basileus) Agamemnon, King of Kings, Most Kingy (basileutatos) even among the Very Kingy Indeed, and of All Islands King.

Bob's Hair Colourant
When I was young, Barclay’s made profits from the oppressive regimes of a cabal of South American military dictators. But the bank is now dodgily fixing LIBOR. The process of secretly manipulating something that sounds like a mixture of LIQUOR, LIVER and LIBERTINE (actually the London Interbank Offered Rate) is (bizarrely) perceived as Going Too Far even by the totally amoral community of high financiers. 

'The Death of Crassus' by Pierre Cousteau (1555)
I don’t myself understand the casuistic distinctions which self-styled ‘virtuous’ bankers draw between themselves and Diamond. Surely all financially creamed-off ‘property’ is theft? But Diamond really is under pressure to resign. David Cameron, whose personal fortune derives partly from his ancestors’ profession of helping rich people evade taxes, is on one of his hypocritical high horses. He is demanding that Diamond’s head rolls.

I personally would like to see Bob force-fed molten gold, the retribution which Cassius Dio says the Parthians devised for the avaricious Roman General Crassus who thirsted for their wealth. Somewhere in Turkmenistan there is a golden replica of Crassus’ oesophagus. 

But perhaps for Bob Diamond we need a punishment that has to do with diamonds instead. I would also enjoy sentencing him to hard labour, with the status of illegal immigrant, in a dangerous diamond mine where trade unions were banned.  

The Very Fishy Alex Salmond
It is fun to associate prominent people’s names with their trades or physiognomy:  the piscine First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, could not look more like a salmon if he tried. Bob Diamond could have been called ‘Gold’, or ‘Proffitt’, but ‘Diamond’, appropriately, implies unparalleled hardness as well as financial excess.  Bob Diamond is also a sponger on the rest of us. A cartoonist like Georgia Poynder (age 12) might draw him as SpongeBob DiamondPants (see fig. below).

SpongeBob Diamondpants
Even conservative estimates of Bob’s  annual salary vary between £1.3-million-plus-17-million-bonuses, and about three times that much. But speaking as a girl who knows a lot about artificial hair colorants, my question to Bob Diamond is actually this: given the enormity of your income, why don’t you invest in a better quality of hair-dye?  Don’t you agree with L’Oreal that you are self-evidently ‘worth it’?
SpongeBob Squarepants

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Promethean Politics of Education

Prometheus Chained in Sheffield yesterday
Last night in the open-air Greek theatre looming over the railway station in Sheffield, the historic heart of the British steel industry, Prometheus was chained to his crag as a punishment for supporting the advancement of the human race and daring to speak truth to Zeus, the self-appointed new Dictator of the Universe. 

The production of Henry Stead's beautiful new version of the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound was mounted by citizens of Sheffield and current and former Classics PhDs at London, Oxford and the Open Universities, led by my own PhD students Lottie Parkyn and Matt Shipton. Lottie graduated from Birmingham University (see below) and Matt, who comes from Sheffield himself, is studying the suppression of the authentic voices of young people in Athenian drama. The production was an inspiring example of what such young people can do for culture and community in the 21st century if given even half a chance.

Abolitionist Prometheus & Heracles (1807)
This great play was adopted in the late 18th and 19th centuries as the manifesto of the campaign to abolish slavery. It  forces its audiences to think about the potential of humans to create the world they deserve as well as their eternal vulnerability to sabotage by self-interested ploutocrats, politicians, careerists and "managers".

The parallels between the crisis in the play and those afflicting international Higher Education are striking. At the University of Virginia, a heroic President has been ousted for supporting the life of the mind, the culture of the State of Virginia, teachers and students against her finance-fixated executive board. At Birmingham in England, a cabal of middle-aged white men (and they are all men)--the Vice-Chancellor David Eastwood, the Pro Vice-Chancellor and Ancient History Professor Michael Whitby, and a couple of other senior academics--proposes to carve up the available power, salaries and pensions between themselves, while threatening their juniors with destitution. 
Teresa Sullivan, ousted by ploutocrats

The new gods of the Birmingham Olympus have not yet exiled their victims to aeons of torture in the Caucasus, but they have made it clear that if these terrified young staff break their "Confidentiality Agreements" they will only worsen their own plight. Just like the whole jobless, impoverished international generation born since about 1975, the lecturers are being brutally excluded from any opportunity to participate fully in the institutional dimension of the human project.

But Prometheus knew that Zeus was not invulnerable. His gift of fire enabled humans to arm themselves against poverty, ignorance, joylessness and oppression. The technology of the Internet has now given the world powerful new ways in which to unite in support of a fairer and more humane future, as the use of social networks in major revolutions has resoundingly shown.

David Oyelowo in Aquila Theatre's Prometheus
So did  the very much smaller case of the FaceBook group Save Classics at Royal Holloway, which is to close next Thursday (June 28th 2012) exactly a year after it opened, having achieved its specific goals. It is being replaced by the new group ClassicsInternational (join if you haven't already: non-Classicists are hugely welcome). Prometheus knows things that Zeus does not, and can communicate via the Internet with allies. So tyrants of the academic world--you have been notified!

Friday 15 June 2012

Birmingham Blues

David Eastwood
The teaching of the ancient Greeks and Romans has now come under fire at Birmingham. It is housed there in the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, which the Vice-Chancellor David Eastwood, a historian with a penchant for football, has opened up to a violent Penalty Shoot-Out (aka the dreaded “90-day review” with which RHUL Classics was threatened fifty weeks ago).

Painting by Alma Tadema
Birmingham University has been the home of some of the most exciting Classics anywhere, ever.  It is the Birmingham Uni Heslop Library that holds Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s photographs of ancient sculpture, architecture, and archaeological sites, so crucial to his famous paintings. 

It was the amazing Edward Sonnenschein who was in 1883 appointed the first professor of Greek and Latin at the newly founded Mason College in Birmingham. He then co-founded the UK Classical Association, and campaigned for the charter for the University of Birmingham (granted in March 1900), which thereafter became a model for other modern universities. He virtually invented the teaching of Classics in translation to a wide range of Humanities undergraduates.

Edward Sonnenschein
The richness of the history of Birmingham Classics subsequently is humbling. The poet Louis MacNeice’s entire life’s work, including Autumn Journal, was informed by his experiences as a lecturer there,  especially when he faced classrooms of local car factory workers. It was in MacNeice’s social circle that W.H. Auden was inspired to write many of his most famous poems. E.R. Dodds, MacNeice’s patron, Professor of Greek in the University of Birmingham, left an indelible mark on Classics as editor of the Bacchae and author of The Greeks and the Irrational.
The most brilliant, if controversial, of Birmingham classicists was George Thomson, whose Marxist studies of ancient Greek society, including Aeschylus and Athens, are still in print after more than six decades. 

It was Birmingham University which gave an honorary degree to Michel Saint-Denis, the epoch-making French theatre director, who directed Laurence Olivier as Oedipus and Peggy Ashcroft as Electra at the Old Vic theatre company. 
Olivier in Saint-Denis' Oedipus

More recently, the exceptionally erudite and distinguished Donald R. Dudley and C.D.N. Costa put their editions and translations of Tacitus, Seneca, Lucian and ancient letter-writers indelibly on the cultural map of the planet. Costa was the sort of quiet hero who unostentatiously, without breathing a word to anyone at work, devoted thousands of hours as a voluntary prison visitor throughout all his decades of service to Birmingham scholarship. 

I fear this may be taken as a sad obituary of Classics at Birmingham. I hope that V-C David Eastwood hears it rather more interrogatively. I very much doubt if he has the slightest idea what treasures he has the power to destroy.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Why Can't Art Be Ethical?

Locked Out of the Main Republican Party!
I haven't had the best of weeks. On Sunday the police prevented me and child 2 from waving our ‘Make Monarchy History’ banners at the royal barge at the Jubilee. They rounded us up along with hundreds of other Republicans in a street well away from the cameras of the world. But on Tuesday I was caught on video being shouted at myself in a soaking tent in the borderlands of England and Wales.

Art of the temple of Brauronian Artemis

The context was a festival of ‘philosophy and music’ at Hay on Wye (not the much larger and more prestigious literary festival, founded in 1988, which Bill Clinton once described as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’).  I am usually quite good at running debates,  and  was invited to chair a panel asking whether the modern Art Gallery has become a substitute for the Church (it must be admitted that my sole qualification for this is that my father is an Anglican priest). I was intrigued by the topic because in ancient Greece, temples and art galleries were indistinguishable. The place with all the paintings and the statues and the ‘installations’ was always a temple complex: the Greeks thought the gods loved art and wanted religious buildings jam-packed in their honour.

Back in Britain, with loud folk-rock pulsating through the canvas of the tent, I tried to get the ‘freelance philosopher’ Jonathan Ree going, plus  two of the  top people in the Art world: Charles Saumarez Smith, CEO of the Royal Academy, and Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Modern.

Charles and Penelope agreed that art galleries resemble churches socially in that there is rivalry between different cities to build the most splendid new architectural edifice to dominate the local skyline. They were in absolute disagreement that visual art could or should have an effect on the viewer of any spiritual or metaphysical kind—Saumarez Smith thought transcendence possible, while Curtis thought it was actually undesirable. They both think that the main aim of art is to invite the viewer to ‘look at looking’, that is, reflect on what s/he is doing while contemplating the artwork (i.e. in the language of a ‘festival of philosophy’, do something cognitive or epistemological). All very postmodern, self-aware, 'sef-reflexive', 'meta-' and (to my mind) so very onanistic and ‘last-century’.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
And then I put my foot in it. My understanding of one of the reasons why people (used to) go to church is to get moral guidance. Religion can provide ethical standards, codes of behaviour, and encourage unselfishness and charity. I asked whether art could or should substitute for the ethical function of churchgoing. Both luminaries shuddered in absolute horror. How could I have raised such an obscene question? You would have thought that I had proposed legislation dictating that art could only feature youths in love with tractors, as in Stalinist ‘socialist realism.’ The implication was that connecting art and ethics was profoundly dangerous and would lead immediately to political censorship.

The audience response was fascinating. One woman spoke about how art had given her a reason to live by creating vistas of hope and possibility when she was widowed. Another suggested that churches were too conservative and authoritarian in the art that they displayed and should encourage congregations to participate in creating inspiring visual environments. 

But one middle-aged man launched an attack on me which was clearly a visceral reaction to the question I had raised, even though it took a personal form (“How can someone as ignorant as you be a Professor of Classics?” and “I can’t believe they asked someone with your ego to chair at this festival!”). I always did know how to charm people.
Horace reciting to Virgil and Maecenas

Ancient critics thought that art was divinely inspired (Homer) and could give you a metaphysical tingle (Longinus in On the Sublime). But they also agreed that at its best it was useful to the community as well as pleasurable, utile as well as dulce (Plato, Aristotle, Horace). Yet another reason we need to keep in touch with the wisdom of our cultural ancestors?

Friday 1 June 2012

On Being Gutless

Tyrants are more frightening than this
A paranoid tyrant reacts to dissent by issuing absurd retributive mandates and persecuting the young, the poor, and the vulnerable. Arguments about common decency from citizens and counsellors fail to make any impression. Torture and arbitrary death sentences, as well as sacrilegious neglect of corpses and funeral customs, become the stuff of everyday life. Am I talking about Syria in June 2012? No. This is the situation in the Thebes run by Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, currently in production at the National Theatre in London.

Antigone, under arrest, brought to Creon
Not that you would notice that the play is about tyranny and terror.  The National Theatre is now only interested in television stars, irony, and gimmicky special effects.  For some time now I have been increasingly discomfited by the social and political cowardice of its productions of the Classics.  

It was disturbing when the 2008 Oedipus starring Ralph Fiennes was 'sponsored by Shell', a company with a reputation for cosying up to dictatorial regimes (some humourists at the time suggested the connection could be explained by the parallel between the ancient Theban and modern Nigerian experience of pollution).  But last Wednesday night, it was actually hard for me to keep still.  

How is it possible that actors of the calibre of Christopher Ecclestone and Jodie Whittaker can fail to engage us in a superb play about taking a stand against a brutal despot who has the state army at his disposal?  How can it be that there was no audience reaction whatever when Sophocles’ answer to Bashar al-Assad threatened his proletarian guardsman with slow death by torture? 

Houla Outrage
How it is possible that in a world where just last week dozens of children and women were slaughtered in Houla, this Creon had been directed to play it for laughs when he called the bereaved and distraught sisters Antigone and Ismene ‘neurotic’?  

Don’t get me wrong. I like radical, amusing and subversive adaptations and reappraisals of canonical literature and drama. I LOVE having a good laugh in the theatre even when—or especially when—the planet seems cruel and depressing. I don’t particularly like being preached at about human rights by earnest liberal thespians who have never been persecuted, either. 

Antigone and Rosa Parks
But  respect is required if you are going to put on a masterpiece which has been performed, at personal risk to the personnel involved, under conditions of state terror. Antigone has protested against tyranny in Jaruzelski’s Poland and in apartheid South Africa, for the independence movement in Manipur and for the mothers of the disappeared during the Dirty War in Argentina (see Antigone on the World Stage ed. E. Mee & Helene Foley [2011]).  At the National Theatre she comes over like a spoilt child who has been told by the manager of her riding school that she has been excluded from the annual gymkhana. NUL POINTS, NT.