Tom Sutcliffe: Could you spot the future if it arrived?

The week in culture


Here's a simple cultural thought experiment. You're in the stalls of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris on the evening of 29 May 1913. You've come to see the Ballets Russes and, for the purposes of this experiment, you've come without preconceptions. And then the curtain goes up on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and a riot breaks out. Now, are you one of the people booing or one of the people vainly attempting to get them to stop? There's some debate as to whether it was Stravinsky's music or Nijinsky's choreography that caused the stramash – but for the purposes of this exercise that doesn't matter. The real issue is whether you think you'd have had the discernment to recognise the future if you were there when it arrived early.

I don't know how you answer this question. But I have a rueful feeling that I would have been among the doubters. And that's because almost all of us would have been. Genuine cultural innovation is deeply unsettling, even though it can be hard to retain a sense of just how uncomfortable it is once posterity has done its work of accommodating the novelty. You listen to Stravinsky's music now and all you can hear is its urgency and clarity, the challenge to convention having disappeared as convention itself adjusted. And it's then easy to characterise resisters at the time as even more conservative than they actually were. We enjoy stories about our culturally appalled predecessors because such stories flatter us – so effortlessly at ease with yesterday's difficulties. This is a very common form of self-congratulation.

You can see a good example in Tate Britain's exhibition on Picasso and Modern British Art, the opening room of which contains a couple of references to the consternation Picasso caused in some circles when his work was first seen here. GK Chesterton is featured for his dismissive description of Mandolin and Glass of Pernod, which he'd seen in reproduction in a magazine, as "a piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it with his boots". The star reactionary, though, is Sir Alfred Munnings, who gave a now famous speech when he retired as President of the Royal Academy in 1949. I listened to the BBC recording of it the other day and it is a minor comic masterpiece of blimpish outrage. By the sound of it Sir Alfred had wildly over-toasted at the preceding dinner, so his diction is ragged. At one point he shies twice from the high fence of the word "innumerable" before finally managing to clatter over, carrying half the syllables with him as he goes.

But the gist of his speech couldn't be clearer. "If you paint a tree", he bellows, "for God's sake try and paint it to look like a tree! And if you paint a sky try to make it look like a sky!" Various artists get a scornful name-check – including Matisse and Henry Moore – but Picasso seems to affront him the most. "On my left I have our newly elected extraordinary member of the Royal Academy Sir Winston Churchill," he says at one point. "And I know he's beside me because he once said to me, 'Alfred... if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his something something?' I said: 'Yes Sir! I would!"

Then Sir Alfred chortles loudly at this happy mental picture. Sad old fool, we're supposed to think – mired in representation, and stubbornly fighting a rearguard action in a war lost years before.

Except that Sir Alfred was right to fight, even if you don't agree with his assessment of modern art as "foolish drolleries". He certainly grasps how radical Picasso and his fellow artists were, and gives a more honest account of the challenge Picasso represented for contemporary audiences than some far more sophisticated descriptions. And the impressive thing is that that challenge still hasn't lost its edge (in the way that it arguably has done with Matisse or Moore).

Eighty years on Picasso still hasn't been domesticated. I think it's a mark of his greatness as an artist, but I still can't feel superior to Sir Alfred for his adverse reaction. I just count myself lucky that culture had some 50 years to come to terms with these pictures before I first saw them.

These clever camera moves lead us nowhere

You don't often get to see a new kind of camera movement, the basic chromatic scale of pans, zooms and tracking shots having been essentially exhausted by cinema years ago. CGI extended the possibilities slightly, but even then it was usually a matter of amplifying a conventional motion. And though new combinations are always possible, they're mostly made up from entirely familiar components. But I can't think of a precedent for a sequence in Oren Moverman's film Rampart, in which a three-way conversation is presented as a chain of revolving pans. A character talking will enter the screen on the right-hand side and smoothly progress to the left, at which point the edit usually cuts to someone else, who passes across the screen in exactly the same way and at exactly the same pace, as if the camera is on a motorised swivel mount in front of them. It's so odd and distinctive that I described it as an "invention" when talking about it on the radio... the point being that the motion seems robotically indifferent to the action taking place. Whether it's a useful invention is another question. I can't actually remember what the characters were saying in this scene because the effect was so disorientating and dizzying that I didn't really listen to the dialogue. The film was pretty good, but it was a lot better when it wasn't being turned into a showcase for the appropriately named Moverman's cinematic ingenuity.

For a bigger bang, be less obvious

Nicolas Kent's swansong at the Tricycle Theatre, The Bomb – a set of 10 specially commissioned new plays – was characteristically timely. On Monday evening I watched a sequence of plays about Iranian nuclear proliferation and on Wednesday read news reports about the UN inspectors' failure to gain access to one of the sites they suspect is being used to create a nuclear weapon. The playlets informed one's reading of current affairs and current affairs threw light back on the drama – an almost perfect definition of what political theatre should be doing. But I did have one quibble about the occasion. Every play addresses the subject square on. True, there are black comedies and wry satires and there are several plays that acknowledge the way in which public issues have private individuals at the heart of them. But every play explicitly acknowledges, at some point or other, the central theme of the enterprise. And that seemed a pity. Given that deterrence and disarmament and mutual assured destruction can be features of the most banal everyday experiences too, it would have been nice to have at least one piece which approached the matter obliquely. There's a definite dramatic dividend when writers are given a tight brief to write about just one topic. There might be a bigger one if they were also instructed to let the audience work out for themselves what that topic actually was.

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