Forget nudity and swearing. A real shock would be for the art world to engage with the right

Plus The honour is all his in the Panter household and Private Lives' Toby Stephens picks a very public fight with Joan Collins

David Lister
Thursday 20 June 2013 16:58
ICA: Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), Tom of Finland
ICA: Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), Tom of Finland

Does art have the power to shock any more? I ask as the ICA in London opens an exhibition of what it terms "sexually graphic" drawings. They are technically interesting, but leave me unshocked. Sex, I believe, no longer shocks, whether it is portrayed on canvas, simulated on stage or even acted out on film. Nudity has long since ceased to have any shock value. Ditto gay art. Ditto swearing.

One of the problems for art, and especially perhaps for the ICA, historically the home of the artistic shock factor, is that we have become unshockable. It's hard to think of any art in any art-form that can make us blush. So one sympathises with the ICA, which has been seeking a post-Sixties and Seventies identity for the last few decades. It has to find new ways to surprise, let alone shock, if it is to have any sort of specific raison d'être alongside all the other contemporary-art institutions, which over the years have borrowed much of its clothing.

So how do you shock the culturally unshockable? There is one way left. It is for the arts, which have traditionally approached life from the left of centre, to give us more of an insight into how the right is thinking. It might be through plays and screenplays on immigration or fundamentalism, and not just Islamic fundamentalism, though that should certainly be addressed. It might be through talks and debates on censorship, not just the obvious sort, the censorship by undemocratic governments, but also the self-censorship that abounds among writers for fear of offending potentially violent minorities.

The ICA could and should be taking a lead in this. This is not to suggest that culture in Britian shifts its centre of gravity and adopts a different world view. It is to suggest that it examines different views more thoroughly, that it debates propositions, which it traditionally may have found unpalatable. These debates can be fictitious, on the page, screen or stage, or they can be actual debates in places like the ICA, South Bank Centre and arts centres across the country.

I hear that the Royal Academy is considering making part of its building a centre for such debates. Perhaps that is an indication that the art world realises that intellectual debate, embracing all parts of the poltiical spectrum, could be the new cutting edge.

Much more than sexually explicit art or risqué drawings, such discussion would have the power to illuminate contemporary mores. It would even have the power to shock.

The honour is all his in the Panter household

I hope I am not coming between husband and wife if I congratulate Howard Panter, co-founder and joint chief executive of Ambassador Theatre Group, on his knighthood. Note the "joint" and the "co". Sir Howard co-founded the group and runs it with his wife, Rosemary Squire, who, though an OBE, is not a Dame and was not in the Queen's birthday honours. He said: "I reserve special gratitude to my wife and partner in all that I do, Rosemary Squire, without whom much of what has been achieved would not have been possible." That should keep the peace over breakfast.

Private Lives' Toby picks a very public fight with Joan

Interviews with actors are generally a chance for the interviewee to praise anyone they have worked with. So it was refreshing to read an interview with Toby Stephens in which he was downright bitchy about a fellow thespian. Stephens is to star in Noël Coward's Private Lives, and he said he was put off the play when, as a drama student, he had a job tearing tickets at a production of Private Lives starring Joan Collins. "She just wafted about the stage being Joan Collins," he recalled, adding that the star came in "on a wave of hair lacquer". One reader was Joan Collins, who tweeted that Stephens was pretty awful at tearing tickets.

As I say, refreshing. Actors should be more like football managers and cock a snook sometimes at fellow professionals. So here's to Toby Stephens, and please could he let me know when he might next be in a room with Joan Collins. I'd like to be there.

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