Blackkklansman’s bleak conclusion offers a glimmer of hope in dark times

Can compromised organisations be turned into a force for good in society, and can individuals exert positive impacts in organisations whose dark side overshadows their light? These questions are put by Spike Lee’s compelling film Blackkklansman.

A dramatisation of the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the film zeros in on the intersection between the two organisations, the Colorado Police Department and the Klan, in the late 1970s

Both are responding in their way to the liberalising forces that have swept through America in the preceding years. The police are encouraging the recruitment of ethic minorities. The Klan are donning suits and attempting to sanitise their rhetoric, in order to take their hateful message mainstream. There are elements within both organisations which resent the liberal turn. Beyond the police, a third organisational player, the network of black power activists, poses awkward questions about the rationale for liberalising. Stallworth strikes up a relationship with the leader of the local activists. She categorically dismisses the idea that a racist police force can be reformed from within.

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I, Tonya shows the role of power in achievements

triple axel

Before Christmas, I wrote a blog post with the title Effort more than talent is the key to achievement. True enough. But how could I have forgotten to mention another critical determinant: power?

Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya – starring Margot Robbie as the American figure skater, Tonya Harding – shows us how power, or the lack of it, can frustrate even the most promising blend of effort and talent.

Tonya Harding had both in spades. She was famously the first American woman to achieve the phenomenally difficult triple axel jump in competition (and only the second in the world). Her skating career came to an end after she was implicated in an attack on her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan. But, as portrayed in the film, this incident arose out of a wider nexus of class and gender relations that had held her back from the outset.

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Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

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Jasper Johns shows us what mastery means

flag

I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.
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David Hockney at the Royal Academy

hockney

David Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, is a welcome respite from the bewilderment and despondency of Brexit-Britain.

The exhibition consists of a series of portraits that Hockney began on returning to Los Angeles after the untimely death of one of his studio assistants. In his grief, he lost his purpose and motivation. The series charts, therefore, his turning back to life and a gradual healing. The first portrait is of another of his studio staff, head down in anguish. He appears again towards the end of the series – two years later – more open, engaged and accepting. The series as a whole has a similar trajectory. Hockney begins with busyness and disharmony in the backgrounds but these give way to calmer backdrops, the better to study the people before him.

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The value of culture lies in its capacity to enrich lives

The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess
The National Gallery drew large crowds during the Second World War for recitals by Myra Hess

Organisations of all kinds face a new challenge: to demonstrate that they create value for society and not just for themselves.

A reckoning has been a long time coming after the financial collapse of 2008. But it’s arrival is unmistakable – not just in the mood music of the party leaders as they compete to compose the best tune on moral capitalism. It’s evident in the furore around the aborted bonus of the RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, the broadly sympathetic hearing given to the Occupy protestors at St. Paul’s, and the public revulsion over the phone hacking scandal which brought about the Leveson Inquiry into the role of the press.

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Art in the time of austerity

National Portrait Gallery

We’ve recently completed a project with the National Portrait Gallery, who engaged us to develop a draft social value model. We spoke to people at all levels of the National Portrait Gallery’s staff as well as external stakeholders such as corporate sponsors.

We found this a striking instance of the specifity of making a social value case. It’s tempting to think in generic terms about the social value of any given sector. But each institution is different. The National Portrait Gallery has unique characteristics which differentiate it from other galleries and museums. These are rooted in its founding purpose, which was to tell the story of Britain through portraits of men and women of achievement. Unusually for an art gallery, this means that the subject of the artworks is of greater importance than their artistic merit. Is the National Portrait Gallery, therefore, most similar to other galleries in their role as custodians of arts or to museums which curate artifacts of historic interest? To what extent should it stay true to its Victorian mission to tell a canonical story of Britain versus a contemporary, post-modern one to foster critique of hegemonic narratives and encourage a more inclusive portrayal of Britain?

The answer to these question are determined in part by the view one takes of the social value that the Gallery should deliver under different scenarios of how the economic crisis will play out.

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