Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Leviathan - The Politics of Thomas Hobbes

I'm not really sure why it is that I was attracted to this book. Maybe it was it's title, but ever since I was in University the cover attracted me somewhat. Now I have read it twice, and it is an incredibly chunky book to read. This latest time has taken me three whole weeks, and I have to admit that it isn't one of those books that you can casually read. In fact, a part of me, as I was getting to the end, was kicking myself for not taking notes. However, if I was taking notes, it would have taken me a lot longer, and I probably would have filled an exercise books with scribble that afterwards I wouldn't be able to read (it actually makes me wonder if the art of writing is soon going to become a lost art, though I did have a teacher that refused to mark assignments printed out on a printer).

Normally I would have just written a book review on Goodreads and left it at that, but a part of me felt that there is a lot that has come out of this book that I probably should write a blog post as well. However, before I continue, I'll share a little bit of background with regards to me and this book. When I was younger, back in the days when I wanted to get married, have a family, and become a hot shot lawyer, I wanted to have a baby just so that I could read this book to him (or her) when they were young. One reason for this is that a friend of my told me how he read his children the classics when they were kids, and since I'm one of those people who are a little different, I wanted to read them a book that people generally wouldn't read their children. Then again, I probably would have ended up reading them Machiavelli as well. However, when I suggested this to a friend at church she had a heart attack, claiming that it was a humanist text. Mind you, she now teaches English Literature at Harvard so I'm not entirely sure how that worked.

Hobbes' Era

I feel that a bit of background is pretty important when it comes to this text. Actually, background is probably important when it comes to any text, though if you happen to be one of those post-modernists that claim that context is pretty irrelevant then that is another story. Okay, I can be one of those post-modernists at times, but in the end I am one of those people that have grown up with the understanding that context actually adds a lot more to a text and in a way I don't think post-modernism can change that. The thing is that when we come to Leviathian, context is pretty important and does help us understand where Hobbes is coming from.

The problem that England was facing was with the King. You see, King Charles was a tried and true Catholic, and also a tried and true monarchist, and there happened to be this institution, full of protestants, and pretty extreme ones at that (they closed all of the theatres because they were of the devil) objecting to the way that he was doing things. This eventually ended in parliament revolting against the king, and is also the reason why the Queen is no longer allowed to step foot in the House of Commons. Anyway, push came to shove, they went to war, and ended up removing Charles' head. Well, there was also this issue of Guy Fawkes who also tried blowing up parliament, and this has come down to a tradition where fire works are let off and mannequins are burnt on bonfires.

This was a pretty chaotic period in English history, and if we look back a few decades we come to Shakespeare who actually warned us in numerous plays of the dangers that are faced when legitimate rulers are deposed. Well, it probably shouldn't surprise us how quickly people forget things because they pretty quickly forgot the horrors of the Wars of the Roses and decided that because the King didn't want to do things the way that they wanted, they might as well get rid of him. Even with Oliver Cromwell at the helm, things didn't turn out all that well - especially after he died, and the country eventually ended up asking Charles' son to come back and take the throne - and they also promised that they wouldn't remove his head. Mind you, that didn't last all that long before they got sick of next king (James II) and invited the William of Orange to come and take over which has come down to us as the Glorious Revolution (which probably wasn't all that glorious).

So, it is into this turmoil that Hobbes has written his book, and in a sense it is a book that is designed to address the turmoil that England was facing at the time. It is a pretty chunky book, and it did take me three weeks to read, however it is also considered the progenitor of Political Science (which I still wonder whether it actually is a science). So, let us take a look at this book, and question whether it actually has any meaning for us today.

Political Science

Honestly, I'm not entirely sure whether you can actually call politics a science, but then again anthropology is also considered a science. However, at university both departments were a part of the faculty of arts, or as it has later been referred to, the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. According to Wikipedia, Political Science is the study of governments, and political actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Initially I was under the impression that political science only dealt with democracies since they tend to eb and flow based upon the population as a whole - yet it is clear that it similarly applies to dictatorships and cults of personalities.

As it was suggested, Leviathan was the first book to explore the concept of political science. Sure, there have been lots of books on how a government should run, and concepts of the perfect form of government, but while that could be considered a part of political science, the subject goes much further than theorising on how governments should run. However, I'm not entirely sure whether you could consider Leviathan to encapsulate the science since Hobbes spends a lot of time arguing that the best form of government is a Christian commonwealth. In fact he is more concerned with stability than anything else, which is not surprising considering the era in which is was writing.

The Arrest of Guy Fawkes.

One aspect of stability is being able to have a peaceful, and effective, change of government. This has been something that humanity has been struggling with for ages, but the reality is that it isn't really possible, particularly in a time of majority rules. What happens when we have an effective government that people universally dislike? Well, in a democracy they get tossed out and replaced with somebody that may be nowhere near as good (or downright terrible). We live in a world of political capital, opinion polls, and decisions based upon whether people will like you or not.

I remember studying politics in High School. One reason was because politics is one of those areas that a lot of people, especially young people, want to become involved in. The problem is that the subject is not so much about how to become a politician, but how the system of governments are supposed to operate. Further, when you are studying the subject, one simply cannot bash a political party based upon personal opinions or personalities. Mind you, our teacher then proceeded to label a number of politicians as cretins. I also remember when we were talking about communism he proceeded to hang a picture of Karl Marx on the classroom wall, only to take it down at the end of the lesson because at the time Australia had welcomed a lot of Vietnamese refugees into the country, and many of them were studying English at the school.

However, we did learn about how the Australian government functioned, how decisions are made and laws are changed, and also the branches of the government. We studied the political parties, and their differences (and, according to our teacher, the difference was that one sold off assets faster than the other), as well as how they are influenced. As such journalism and the lobby industry were explored. Finally, we also looked at two other systems of government, namely the American model and the Chinese model. The interesting thing is that the one party states can be just as complex as our democratic models, and just because the country is ruled by a single party does not mean that there aren't factions within the party - it is just that party control is much more strict.

Church and State

This is a topic that has been dominating Western Civilisation since the time the Roman Empire officially become a Christian country. The emperor Theodosius attempted to nominate 'his man' as patriarch of Constantinople. He was then promptly rebuked and told that there was a line that the secular authority did not cross, and that line was the line that he was standing in front of. The bishops then presented him with a short list of their preferred candidates and made it clear that it was from this list that the choice was to be made. Since that time there was a limit of the secular powers over that of the church. However, this wasn't a two way street, and while the Emperor was prohibited from interfering with the operation of the church, the opposite wasn't the case. In fact, this event effectively established the church as a power that sits over the state.

This was the way things worked for the next millenia, that is until the kings began to rebel against the decrees of the Pope, which led to the great schism and the Avingnon Captivity. Up to that time the Pope held a huge amount of power over the kings, with threats of excommunication forcing them to bow to his will (though in one case the Pope was female). Since it was believed that the Pope was Christ's representative on Earth, and that when speaking from his throne, the decree of the Pope was considered scripture, it was believed that the Pope could effectively deny somebody a place in heaven. However, this collapse in Papal authority led to the reformation, and in turn the English civil war.

The original cover for Leviathan is quite interesting in how this dual sovereignty is illustrated. Here is an image of the original (though the edition that I read only had a part of the cover).

The interesting thing about England is that it's reformation went in completely the opposite position - the King broke away from the Catholic church and made himself the head of the church. This isn't what happened elsewhere, such as Germany and Switzerland. Then again these countries were pretty decentralised which is why it didn't happen that way. However, the thousand odd year tradition had been turned on its head, and instead of the popes controlling the kings, the king now appointed the bishops and archbishops (though these days the Queen pretty much rubberstamps everything).

This is what we see in the cover - here we have the sovereign, holding the sceptre in one hand, and the religious staff (or crossier) in the other. Note that the body of the sovereign (and it looks as if it could be King Charles), is made up of hundreds of people, which represents the citizenry. This symbolises the social contract, in that the king agrees to rule fairly and justly, and to provide peace and security, and the citizenry agree to accept the sovereign and to pay their dues. Below the main image with have 10 panels, on the left symbols of secular authority (the castle, the crown, the cannon, weapons, and the battle), while to the right we have symbols of religious authority (the church, the mitre, excommunication, logic, and prayer). This gives us two images - one of conflict, and another of a balancing act.

However, there is a limit to the separation of church and state. The church is not a law unto itself. If the government makes a law then the church is expected to abide (within reason) to these laws. Okay, we do have times when the churches refuse to acknowledge unjust laws, and we have instances of them offering sanctuary to refugees. However, there are also other laws which seem to be obsolete - such as being tax exempt. Yet the tax question is an incredibly tricky one, since there are a lot of good churches that would go under if they were suddenly forced to pay taxes. On the other hand we have churches abusing their tax exempt status.

Hobbes' Government

To put it simply, Hobbes doesn't particularly like democracy, but then again neither did Shakespeare - however I deal with that below. At first Hobbes explores the types of government, and also explores the idea of the social contract. This, as mentioned above, is a contract between the citizenry and the sovereign to fulfil their mutual obligations. Mind you, the idea of mutual obligations are bandied about here, such as the concept of working for unemployment benefits. This is something that I technically don't have a problem with, as long as the work is fairly rewarded (which it isn't). You see, unemployment benefits aren't free money, it is money to tie you over while you are between jobs.

Hobbes, in a sense, is a traditionalist. The only effective form of government is the government by a monarch. However, he does recognise that the monarch theoretically has unlimited power - basically he can do what he wants. This was one of the reasons that the United States broke away from England, and why the French revolted. Yet, in a purest sense, this is the case. This is solved these days through the use of constitutions - these documents restrict the power of government, and are designed to prevent one person from being entrenched.

In Australia, the Federal legislative body only has power to make laws in areas that section 51 of the Constitution gives it the power to do so. If parliament attempts to make laws outside of those areas they can be struck down by the High Court. Mind you, for that to happen, somebody needs to challenge the law in the High Court. So, the theory is that parliament can do anything, unless it is outside the scope of the powers granted in section 51, and somebody challenges them (and the High Court agrees).

Hobbes spends half the book exploring what he terms the Christian Commonwealth. This section basically looks at how the church is construction, and also how the Bible demonstrates the sovereign authority of God. In a sense, because God is the perfect king, then the only true form of government is that where there is a king. The problem is that humans aren't perfect - far from it. Yet, Hobbes does not believe that it is our right to remove a king, for to remove a king is to rebel against God. Actually, the Bible is pretty clear on that, particularly when Paul points out that the government is instituted by God.

But, I might hear some say, surely Paul, and Hobbes, couldn't be talking about somebody like the Trumpet. Surely we can #Resist him. Well, first of all, remember that Paul actually lived under Emperor Nero, and he was pretty atrocious. As much as we may not like the Trumpet (and I'm not particularly impressed with him), I'm not sure if we can say he is in the same league as Nero. As for Hobbes, well he had to deal with Charles I, and look at what happened when the parliament attempted to #Resist king Charles - war broke out.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't hold governments accountable, and speak out when they do things that do things that we do not agree with. Yet, there is a line between speaking out against a government, and actually rebelling against a lawfully appointed government. Hobbes' point is that stability is the key, and sure, there are debates as to what rights we give up for stability, but sometimes this is necessary. The fact that we have police roaming the streets means that our streets are safe to walk down - take away the police and I can assure you that all hell will break loose.

The Problem with Democracy

Believe it or not, Plato wasn't a particularly big fan of democracy, and neither was Shakespeare (who compared it to mob rule). Okay, the Bible doesn't mention democracy, namely because there was no need to (though there is little reference to Greece in the Old Testament, and the New Testament starts after the collapse of the Republic). Democracy has been seen as the method of government of the civilised state, yet there are limitations, as we shall see.

First of all democracy, meaning rule by the people, changes with the attitudes of the people. Notice how when Egypt tossed out Mubarrack and went to elections, the Islamic Brotherhood was swept into power. A similar thing happened in Palestine with the election of numerous members of Hamas. South America has also had situations where pro-Russian governments were elected during the Eighties, and this change in the balance of power led to some rather bloody coups (such as with Pinocet in Argentina).

Another problem is what is known as the demogogues. This was the problem that Athens faced, and we also face today. The rulers that may actually be quite competent are resoundingly defeated by those who will pretty much say anything to get elected. This brings up the issues of the 'core' and 'non-core' promises that were used effectively by the Liberal government here in Australia. The core promises are the ones that the candidates plan on sticking too, while the non-core promises are those that can be discarded at will. The problem is that we don't actually know what the core and non-core promises are until after the government has been elected.

Democracies are also governments by the majority, which basically means that minorities end up getting left out in the cold. As such, something that might actually be beneficial for a society routinely get tossed out in favour for things that make the majority happy - what do you want, a clean Earth or cheap electricity. Jobs and growth is also a big mantra, and companies regularly use this as an excuse to resist change. They also use it as a way of blackmailing governments to their will - do this or we will have to shed jobs (and the companies end up shedding jobs anyway).

Is There a Better Way?

I guess that is the million dollar question. The problem is that in the modern state, governments are beholden to the people, so in the end do only what the majority of the people what them to do. It is basically a numbers game - if doing something will upset a few, but make a lot more happy, then do it. Voting trends also are a key factor, so a government is more likely to do something in swing seats, while the regions that regularly vote against them are either ignored, or even punished. As for those in safe government seats, then they tend to be ignored as well (namely because they will always vote for the government).

The rise of the minor parties, at least in Australia, is changing this somewhat. Suddenly seats that were originally considered to be safe, are now becoming contested, forcing governments to start paying attention. Yet the problem is also our attitudes - we want the government to do things, but we won't actually do them ourselves. The cult of personality that has arisen turns party leaders into messiahs, and when they fail that leaves us disappointed. We blame all of our problems on the government, and look forward to the time when the current lot is kicked out, and the other lot are voted in - times should then be better. In a way it is a form of idolatry.

Mostly, though, it is the attitude of the people. Okay, I'd also rest some of the blame on the media as well: they have the power to set the agenda. The pro-refugee movement may spend time and money on attempts to help people understand that refugees aren't evil, and that the unemployed aren't lazy, but all it takes is for one 'shock jock' to say something to pretty much undermine all of that work. This thus raises a question of freedom of speech, but that is another topic for another time.

Creative Commons License

Leviathan - The Politics of Thomas Hobbes by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

David Hockney - iPad Art

One night I was out with my friends and we happened to find ourselves at the National Gallery of Victoria. Actually, it was a festival in Melbourne called White Night, where the city is basically open all night, as are a lot of the galleries and museums, however this isn't post about White Night (you can read it here, and here - I've been twice) but rather about one of the exhibitions at the gallery. We didn't go into the gallery to see the exhibition though, but rather to check out one of the paintings (the one by Rembrandt, of himself). At the time the major exhibition was of a fashion designer (the NGV seems to have fashion designer exhibitions over the summer period) so I almost missed the one tucked away in the corner, that was of Hockney's latest works.

Hockney is a living artist who was born in Britain to Laura and Kenneth Hockney (who happened to be a conscientious objector to World War II). He studied at the Royal College of Arts in London where his work was featured in an exhibition, alongside Peter Blake, bringing pop art to England. He then visited California where he began to experiment using acrylic. Many of these paintings are of swimming pools, such as the one below called 'A Bigger Splash'.

This experimentation is something that would characterise Hockney's approach to art. He would always look at using new methods and technologies to explore ways of creating his works. In this exhibition many of his works that he created between 2009 and 2015 were on display. Interestingly these works were created using iPads and iPhones. In fact a lot of them were on display using the device, while others had been printed out and simply stuck to the wall. Mind you, this raises the question of whether it actually is art, since the one thing about art is that it tends to be unique - computers change all of that. When the image is digital, it can easily be copied without any decrease in quality. There is only one Mona Lisa, but there can potentially be millions, or even billions, of Hockney's works.

Many of these works are unnamed and unlabeled - we simply see them as is. So, without further ado, let us delve into some of Hockney's works.

This is a flower in a glass. In a way these images seem to be pretty rushed, yet it raises the question as to whether it is art or whether it is just some scribbling on an iPad.

Another flower. I'm sort of wondering where the image has somehow been degraded due to the fact that I am taking a photo of a iPhone with my own phone (which uses the Android system). Yet it also makes me wonder whether it is the name that adds the value to the image as opposed to the image itself. Anybody can take a photo of an old man on the street, but if it is Andy Warhol who is taking the photo then suddenly it is art.

I'll call this 'It's Amazing What You Can Do On An Iphone' namely because that is what he has scribbled in the corner. Mind you, such art has been around for quite a while with programs like, well, Windows Paint. I even remember the days of the Commodore 64 where we had demos which included both graphics and sound. Yet, unlike a computer, iPhones are portable, which gives the artist much more flexibility.

Hockney seems to create a lot of still lifes, and portraits. The difference with the iPhone though is the touch screen. At first Hockney would simply manipulate photos, but later moved to creating the works from scratch. The two pictures of cars on the road also show how one can now create art while sitting in the front (hopefully passenger) seat of the car. Okay, one could have used a sketch pad, but this is the iPhone we are talking about.

Some of these sort of remind me of the paintings of Van Gogh. Another still life, of a chair, this time with clothes thrown over it. This one, and the next few, were done using an iPad, which is much bigger than the iPhone. Personally, I find the pads easier to use due to the size, and reading stuff on them is much better as well. I still find it odd that the pads came out after the phones.

The thing about this exhibition was that it had more to do with completeness, and also showed the development of Hockney's ability to draw using these new devices. The first lot obviously demonstrate an artist using a new medium, but the more he uses the medium, the more skilled he becomes. Here are some more still lifes.

His output was certainly quite large, and these are some more examples. However, note how he is exploring different periods of the day and how colours change over the day. Artist do similar things with regards to the seasons of the years.

This is called 'Bigger Trees near Water' which was created in collaboration with French artist Jean-Pierre Gonclaves. Interestingly Gonclaves calls this 'Peinture sur le motif pour le nouvel age post-photographique' which basically means a painting in the new, post-photographic age. This is an interesting concept because the suggestion is now that art has entered in digital age. If you look at this image closely you will note that it is made out of lots of individual sheets. Not only does art cease to be unique, but the original size no longer matters.

In 2011 Hockney moved to Yorkshire where he created a number of works called 'Yorkshire in Spring'. Here, like a lot of artists on the modern era, the focus was mainly upon colour.

This is another of the drawings, though I'm not sure how they would be describe. A painting is a specific type because it is created using paint, and a drawing is technically created using pencils. Yet using the word 'image' doesn't really create the artistic merit. Notice the difference is skill level compared to those at the beginning.

The next room contained a series of portraits that Hockney had created. However, unlike the previous images these were created on Acrylic.

These are paintings of Douglas Baxter, President of the Pace Gallery, and Lord Jacob Rothschild (and investment banker, but I suspect that we already knew that).

This is Avner Chaim, an artist from Tel Aviv, and Kate Pyrnoos, an immigration lawyer in California.

Finally we have Chloe McHugh, who was an intern with Hockney, and Kevin Durez.

The next couple of drawings came from the next room which was focused on drawings done in Yosemite. This was in contrast to the 'Coming of Spring' drawings, which were done in a Yorkshire forest. Here the landscapes are much vaster, and the colours also quite different.

And so this brings us to an end of another post on an exhibition that I saw, though it was a while back now. There were a couple of more galleries, but the thing is that the main focus of this exhibition was his experiments with the iPad, a new medium. As we have seen he has developed quite a lot over the years since he first decided to play around with it. Whether this is art in the traditional sense is debatable, but he certainly can use it much better than I can.

Creative Commons License

David Hockney - iPad Art by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Much Gossip About Nothing

Well, it seemed as if the Globe has managed to come to Melbourne. Well, not quite because it still sits on the south bank of the Themes as it has done since the replica was rebuilt, but a 'pop-up' version has made its way to Australia's cultural capital to give us a heavy dose of Shakespeare - in fact more than what this city at the back end of the world is actually used to.

The Pop-Up Globe is actually a recent theatre company that has come out of New Zealand of all places. In a way when one thinks of New Zealand one generally doesn't think of Shakespeare - Hobbits, Sheep ... yes, but not Shakespeare. Yet it seems that this little country that lies a considerable distance off the East coast of Australia has managed to produce something that could be held up there with the best of them. Mind you, a part of me does wonder what my theatre snob of a friend actually thinks off these productions (he hated them), but it has been some time since I have seen him, so I'll make sure I'll bring it up the next time I see him,

Oh, and talking about theatre snobs, apparently Hamlet was up there with the best of them. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, on a review of the opening play (which happened to be Much Ado about Nothing);

Though it is vigorous and vibrant and sports an almost gladiatorial feel, this is pop Shakespeare at its most lowbrow and vulgar. It's primed, as Hamlet put it, to "split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise".
Anyway, a part of me for a while was umming and ahhing about whether I should actually go an see something here, since I had felt a little bit Shakespeared out after the last couple of plays that I had seen, though it may have had more to do with me being under the weather than anything else. Yet, I decided that since there were a couple of plays being staged, Much Ado being one of them, I thought that I probably should make the effort - especially since Much Ado happened to be up there with the best of them, at least among the people that I had asked.

The other thing that stood out with this production was that it was one of the very few, if only, productions, that actually let you take photographs during the performance. In pretty much every case there are multiple signs reminding you that photography is forbidden, however here they pretty much welcomed it, though they suggested that while photos were okay, videos weren't. Oh, and they also gave us the all to familiar 'put your phones on silent' spiel. 

A Romantic Twist

I have to admit that it really isn't one of my favourites, namely because it seems to be all over the place. Yet this is the thing with Shakespeare - at first it seems to be very, very confusing, yet as we settle down into the play things start making sense. The reason I suspect has a lot to do with the language - while I won't go as far as calling it archaic, we generally don't speak like that in every day life. Actually, I suspect people back in Shakespeare's day didn't speak like that in everyday life either, namely because it happens to be blank verse, and people don't speak in poetic metre, unless of course you happen to be trying to charm a love interest.

I have seen this play a couple of times previously, though these were a movie staring Kenneth Branagh, and another movie that was directed of Joss Wheldon  - Mr Iron Man himself. The story behind the Joss Wheldon production was that he and a group of friends would have regular Shakespeare sessions at his house, and one day they decided that it might be an idea to not just sit down and read them, but actually perform, and even film, one of the plays, and the play that they chose was none other than Much Ado About Nothing.

It is a popular play, as I have discovered, and having now seen it performed live by a theatre company that had me in stitches, I can now appreciate the genius of the play. Mind you, Shakespeare was very clever in that he was able to target both the lowest common denominator as well as the most high class members of the audience. Well, these days that might not be the case because the lowest common denominators are probably at home watching Funniest Home Videos and Jerry Springer than actually going out to the theatre, but then again I'm probably making baseless assumptions. Further, it wasn't as if entertainment in Shakespeare's day consisted entirely of the theatre since the 'bear pits' sat across the road from the Globe, and it was basically competing with bear ripping things apart.

The thing is that Shakespeare is actually pretty crude - the problem is that we generally don't pick the double-entendres these days. Sure, some people might, but honestly, I would rather spend my time learning French as opposed to learning a language that is no longer spoken simply to understand the jokes in a play that a good troup can tell you anyway - and these guys fell into that category because, as I mentioned, I pretty much left the place in stiches.

The Plot

So, the men have just come back from war, and it is now time to settle down and live the good life - in a way it was much like the Fifties. The men all meet up with the women who have remained behind and decide to have a party. In this group there are two couples - Claudio and Hero, and Benedict and Beatrice. The thing is that this play is a romantic comedy so you know that there are going to be a number of twists and turns, and things aren't going to be anywhere near as simple. Oh, and we also know that this is Shakespeare so there is going to be a mass marriage at the end.

Hero and Claudio seem to be pretty cut and dry, expect they aren't. Don Pedro, the elder of the piece, is trying to set them up, but a few words by his brother, Don John, sows the seeds of conflict. At the end of the party it seems that everything is settled, but when the wedding comes about, all of the sudden Claudio makes it clear that he has decided that he no longer wants to marry Hero, and the engagement is called off.

On the otherside we have Benedict and Beatrice. In these story neither of them want to get married, especially to each other. However, in executing an intricate scheme worthy of Jane Austin, their friends drop little hints here and there, and plant secret letters, that make Benedict and Beatrice believe that the other is madly in love with them. This is one of Shakespeare's genius because he clearly knows human nature - the longer something is fed to somebody the more likely they are going to start to believe it. I'm sure we can all work out what happens in the end, but that is not the point because the fun is actually how we actually get there.

Funny Thing Love

Honestly, I'm not a big fan of romantic comedies. Okay, if they happen to be good then that is another story, but in general I tend to find them quite boring. Actually it probably has a lot more to do with the unrealistic, Hollywood stories that seem to regularly come out. Okay, I may be being rather unfair towards Hollywood, but ironically the romantic comedies that I have liked the most have ended up being those based on other sources (Clueless for example, which was based upon Jane Austin's Emma, though when I went to watch Emma, I simply could not stomach it - setting it in Beverly Hills seemed to resonate more with me than setting it in 18th Century England.

The question that I raise though is whether we actually understand what love really is. For those of use that are fed on a steady stream of Hollywood, we would probably expect it to be this magical thing that brings two people together, who are meant to be together, and that they will end up living happily ever after. That is the key - happily ever after. In many cases there is this idea that once the perfect, the destined, couple get together then nothing is going to break them apart. Well, it seems that the modern divorce rate has something to say about that.

Okay, Shakespeare isn't in the clear when it comes to this style of romance - in fact he is in the thick of it. Consider the fact that these plays end up with everybody getting married. Well, let's give him some slack and just assume that people in Shakespeare's day didn't toss marriages out the door when the dream suddenly didn't work out the way that it was supposed to work out. Also, when marriages are political in nature then divorce is not an option - unless you happen to be King Henry VIII, then you simply change the rules and tell the Pope what to do with his Mitre.

Yet this concept of the couple that was destined to be together isn't something that actually comes out in Shakespeare. Never once is that term used - if a couple marries it is because they want to get married, not because there is some mysterious force that has determined from the beginning of time that they were meant to get married. In fact I even remember people talking like that at University, and even in the church that I would go to, that is the idea of the perfect couple, the ones that were meant to be together. I still remember sitting in the congregation at weddings that have now ended in divorce.

Gossipy Gossip

Apparently the title, Much Ado About Nothing, should actually be Much Ado About Noting, where Noting was a middle English word that meant gossip. The thing is that gossip plays a key role in the play, both with Don John's attempts to undermine the marriage between Hero and Claudio, but also with the cast attempting to bring Beatrice and Benedict together. It is the use of gossip at the party that sows the seeds on doubt in Claudio's mind, and then comes to fruition at the first wedding scene where Claudio decides that he no longer wants to go ahead with the marriage.

That's the thing with gossip, it can be innocent or it can be malicious, but in both cases it can be quite destructive. Well, not on Benedict and Bernice's case, but technically that isn't gossip, that is just a group of friends trying to set a couple up, and using false rumors (which in the end is gossip) to bring them together. However Don John's gossip is of a completely different type, a false rumour that is used to destroy a relationship and to stain somebody's character.

The reality is that we are addicted to gossip, which is why newspapers and magazines sell so well. It gives us an insight into the lives of people that we want to know about. In fact in the workplace and our social circles gossip runs rife. We simply what to know, and the juicier the story, the more that we not only want to know about it, but the more that we want other people to know about it as well. It doesn't matter whether it is true or not, but rather whether it is newsworthy.

Yet the reality is that we rarely, if ever, know all of the facts. In fact we don't actually want to know the facts, we just want to believe that the story that we have been told is true, and the more exciting the story, the more we want to believe it. This is where the destructive nature of it arises because in the end the truth goes out of the window, and the story remains, which has the effect of completely staining an innocent person's character.

Hero and Leander

The story of Hero and Leander seems to be popular with Shakespeare, but then again judging by his plays he certainly seemed to love his tragic love stories. The reason I raise this is because one of the major characters is named Hero, and as such the story of Hero and Leander repeatedly came to mind. Okay, in the play everything turns out all right, but then again this is a comedy and Shakespeare's comedies, in most cases, always end on a high note.

The story is an Ancient Greek myth of a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero, who lived on one side of the Hellespont (the Dardenelles in today's terms), and Leander, who lived on the other side. Hero and Leander fell in love, and every night Hero would light a lamp, and Leander would swim across to be with his beloved. The problem was that as a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero was supposed to be a virgin (despite the fact that Aphrodite was a goddess of lust - go figure), so while everything went well in summer, one winter's night the lamp blew out, Leander lost his way while swimming across and ended up drowning.

This is a rather tragic story for a comedy, but it sort of reflects the nature of the relationship. It is one where the couple desire to be together, and are willing to cross insurmountable odds to do so, but in the end the love was never meant to be. We see this in part with the gossip tearing the relationship apart, and the story is supposed to sit in the back out our head (for those of us who are familiar with it). As the relationship collapses, all we can think of is how it was never meant to be, and we are left at the edge of our seats, waiting and wondering how it will turn out. Will it be a tragedy, as was the case in the myth, or will Shakespeare work his magic and bring it all together again?

Dog's Body

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, there is more that I could write about, but I will finish off with a word about Dogberry, the constable of the night's watch. In a way he is the comic relief, which is odd in a play that is basically a comedy. However, in this play he takes the role of the fool, or the clown. In the performance that I saw he was one of the police officers that you see in the films that ride their bikes along the beach - a rather cushy job that really doesn't require all that much. He is a pretty boy in his shorts, and is basically a clown.

In part he plays the role of the narrator, and in another part he is the person that guides us through the play. Yet he is also the clown, spending half the play looking for his passport (which resulted him, at one stage, stripping down to his underwear). In other productions that I have seen he really didn't seem to do all that much, but in this production he was front and centre - well not quite.

In another way there was an awful lot of audience participation, but anybody who has been to the Globe knows that this is actually part of the performance. Being a 'groundling', that is one of the people with the cheap tickets and in the standing area, means that you have the potential to get wet, and even dragged onto the stage to be made a part of a joke. Having a seat means that you may be referred to during the play, but standing there opens up a whole new set of risks.

It brings me back to Hamlet's comments on the groundlings that I mentioned at the start. These were the cheap tickets, open to the average person who probably didn't know the stories behind the play, or much in the way of the themes and ideas. This is why Hamlet snides at them - the were the average person who would laugh at the crude jokes, and simply come to see all of the blood. In a way, when they were teased at from stage, it is unlikely that they would have fully understood the joke.

Oh, it seems like I have drifted away from Dogberry, but I guess that is because, in the end, Dogberry's humour was really targeted at the lowest common denominator, but also skewed in a way that they didn't even realise that they were being made fun of.

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>Much Gossip About Nothing by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 13 November 2017

RRR - Community Radio

I'm wondering whether the children of today actually know what a radio is, and moreso what a radio station happens to be. In an era of Spotify and Netflix, the traditional methods of broadcasting are slowly dying. In fact one of Australia's television stations has gone into voluntary administration and has since been purchased by CBS. While TVs are struggling to survive, I sometimes completely forget that radio even exists, and sometimes I am surprised to hear that it actually still survives. While video didn't necessarily kill the radio star, they fact that I can jump onto Spotify and listen to what I want to when I want to really changes everything.

Yet I grew up listening to the radio. I still remember when we would sit in the lounge room with the radio on and a tape in the cassette deck waiting for a song to come on, and if it was one of our favourites, then record it. Okay, that changed a little when I had enough money to purchase records and tapes (and later CDs), but right up until I finished university and started my first (and so far only) full time job I would wake up to the news blaring out of my bedside clock radio.

Not quite a clock radio, but you get the picture.
Anyway, the reason this post came up is because the State Library of Victoria has these free exhibitions in one of their rooms, and this year it was on the community radio station RRR. Mind you, having not grown up in Melbourne, and in fact having only been here for five years (and never having listened to any radio while I've been here as well), I'm not at all familiar with the commercial radio stations, let alone a small community radio stations. As such, I'm probably not a huge expert on this, nor overtly sentimental either, yet the exhibition itself was still quite interesting.

Community Radio

Community radio differs from mainstream radio in that they are independent and not beholden to corporate interests. Most of my young years were spend listening to one of the two 'rock' stations in Adelaide - 5KA (on the AM dial, but they later moved to the FM dial and became KAFM) and SAFM. I started off with 5KA but I remember friends telling me that SAFM was much better so I ended up switching over to them. Later I would listen to the local Christian radio station, and in particular their heavy metal hour. At university I ended up switching over to Triple J, which was a national, government funded, broadcaster.

Triple R appears in 1976 after a broadcasting license was issued by the then Whitlam Government who was interested in developing Australian culture. The radio station started on the RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) campus, but quickly outgrew it's premises. The station itself has been funded mainly by sponsorship and subscribership. Over the time the station has faced financial crises, threats of closure, and corporate takeover, all of which have been overcome. However, I do wonder whether the rise of the internet, and the population's movement online is going to keep it going.

One of the first initiatives of the station was to publish a monthly magazine - Radio City. The magazine would talk about the daily happenings at the station, as well as information on other activities, including benefit concerts. Further, unlike the station itself, the magazine was permitted to carry advertising. However, after 27 issues the magazine was ceased, due to financial problems.

The radio station, being a community radio station, doesn't have much in the way of paid staff. In fact many of the people who work at the station are volunteers. I remember back in university a couple of friends managed to score a spot on the university radio station (though I have to admit that I never listened to them). As for RRR, this is also the case, but like with a lot of stations, many of the presenters actually develop a loyal following, which does help.

The purpose of the radio station was basically not to be like the other, commercial stations, but instead to provide educational content (which is not surprising considering the university origins). Mind you, having a radio station where you actively listen to it rather than have it playing in the background isn't really the style of radio station that works. People actively watch television, but the radio is generally background noise. Yet this has worked, and RRR has survived and flourished.

All About the Music

The question is raised as to whether they played music, and the short answer is yes. The question I guess then is what style. Well, looking at some of the play lists it certainly seems to be rock, and also more alternative (Jane's Addiction, Jesus & Mary Chain, the Ramones - gee, these bands go back a while). Yet, the term 'Alternative Rock' didn't really come up until the nineties. During the 80s I there didn't seem to be an 'alternate' rock scene. Well, there was, but that tended to consist of bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, and Iron Maiden. Yet this was heavy metal, and it tended to have a limited following, and certainly not one to justify a radio station if its own (though they did have 'heavy metal hours' on some). One experiment they did try was easy listening over the summer months.

The music style has always been eclectic and diverse, though at first it had a punk leaning (and this was back in the 70s). However, the station has always had a focus on local and the alternative music scene. There is no set play list, which means that the presenters are free to play whatever music they like, and to also generate a discussion around music. The one thing that brings all of the presenters together is their love of music, whether they be musos themselves, or are simply passionate about music. In fact many of their subscribers came about by turning the dial and suddenly discovering that there was a station that played their style of music.

Anyway, here is some Jane's Addiction:

Another thing about RRR was that they would look for up and coming bands, usually by scouring the pub scene, and bring them into the studio. They weren't the only station to do that - Triple J also did a similar thing with their unearthed series (and it seems as if Triple J was based on the model established by RRR). However this is something that commercial stations didn't do - if you wanted airplay on them you had to have already been successful. In fact many well known Australian bands found their fame through RRR. Though, the suggestion that these stations scour the pubs for unknown bands is a requirement to play a certain amount of Australian, and local, music.

Operating the Station

For most of it's life, RRR worked out of leased premises. This can be rather problematic, particularly when the owner decides that they no longer want a radio station on their premises, or they sell the building to developers. RRR moved a couple of times, but after learning that there last lease was not going to be renewed they decided that they would run a fundraising event to purchase a property. This they managed to do, and bought an old lingere factory which now houses their offices and production studios.

An exhibition on a radio station isn't going to be an exhibition is it doesn't actually show you how they work. The centre of the production is the mixer, one of those big machines with lots of buttons, knobs, and levers. The various sounds are fed into the mixer, which is then passed through the system to be sent as a signal up to the broadcasting tower. These towers are usually high up (and in Melbourne that is Mt Dandenong), and then broadcast out across the suburbs to the home and cars. Interestingly some homes had splitters, due to the antennas picking up both television and radio signals. However, my radios all had their own antennas.

As for presenting (or DJing, as the lingo goes), Tony Biggs, who started off in Brisbane, moved to Sydney to present at Triple J, and then found himself as a presenter in Melbourne, describes the art of being able to string a number of songs together so that the listeners feel engaged. However, talking is also a key element in it. Mind you, the art of being a talk back presenter seems to be able to simply spew out rubbish for the length of your show. Yet you can't just say anything because you need to engage the audience. If the audience doesn't like what you are saying then it doesn't matter what tunes you play, they are simply going to tune out (in the literal sense).

Of course they also have a sporting section, and when it comes to sport, at least in Australia, then you have the larikins. This is the route that RRR took. A lot of sporting content tends to be quite bland and boring. Mind you, my Mum still listens to the football on the radio - she rarely, if ever, watches it on television. My uncle is the same, suggesting that he grew up listening to the matches on the radio, and it just come second nature to them. As for me, well, I need to watch it on television, and when it comes to commentators, I generally turn the volume down. As for RRR, well, their segment is quite outlandish and irreverant, which adds a greater dimension to it.

Another thing that RRR does is be involved in the community. One thing that they stage is an annual community football match, which is used to raise funds to support sport and arts for the disadvantaged. Not only is there a football match, but there are also other events, including music. Then there is the parade down Fitzroy Street during the Melbourne Fringe, something that I haven't been aware of as yet, and probably should get around to checking out the next time it comes around (and I've probably missed that this year).

Anyway, here is a song by the Jesus and Mary Chain from their debut album to finish this off:

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RRR - Community Radio by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

Monday, 6 November 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

I have to admit that I simply love this play. I first heard about it in Highschool when my English teacher mentioned it while we were studying Hamlet (and back in Highschool studying a book actually took around a month, particularly since we would read it aloud in class) and described it as a play where two minor characters from Hamlet take centre stage. Mind you, we never actually read the play, or had much more of a discussion beyond that, but his comments had piqued my interest. Anyway, there was a movie that had been done (thanks in part of the assistance of Tom Stoppard since, as it turned out, the play was so complicated that he was the only person that was able to put it on screen), and a few years later I ended up watching it. Needless to say I ended up rolling on the floor in  laughter.

Anyway, here is a trailer I found on Youtube:


Since that time I have watched the movie again and again, and even read the play (namely because I wanted to get an idea of how it was originally performed) but I had never seen it on stage - that is until recently when I discovered that the stage to screen productions had decided to bring it to one of the cinemas in Melbourne. The other interesting thing was that the play starred none other than Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame. It seems as if he is doing his best to attempt to escape that stereotype, though no doubt if it wasn't for Harry Potter he would be little more than a relative unknown. As it turned out he played the role really, really well - he was incredibly funny, he delivered his lines beautifully, and for most of the play I had completely forgotten that he was that dorky little kid that defeated Voldemort.

The Play

As I have previously mentioned, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead is a play about two minor characters in Hamlet - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - and of course the players. However I can't actually say that it has a plot - it doesn't. Rather, it simply drifts from beginning to end, in a rather absurdist and dreamlike quality, with much of the action of Hamlet being played out in the background. In a sense it is basically about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to make sense of the absurdity of their lives, and the fact that they really don't seem to have any control, or any ability to break away from their ulimate doom - their death. The play is basically a continual dialogue between them with the action of Hamlet occasionally breaking through, and also the chief of the players bringing his own thoughts to the equation, thoughts that don't always seem to be appreciated, if only because they don't necessarily bring any comfort to our two protagonists.

The interesting thing is that Tom Stoppard seems to always have his finger in the pie whenever this play is produced, probably because he is the only person who is able to make any head or tail of what is going on. When they attempted to turn it into a film, the story goes that it simply didn't work out until Stoppard stepped in and took over the reins. Radcliffe, before the play, takes us on a tour of the Old Vic, the playhouse where the play was staged, and mentioned that during rehearsal Stoppard would sit in this specific chair munching on lollies (namely because he loves lollies).

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seems to take the concepts of absurdity that had been developed by Beckert and give it more life, and make it much more presentable. For anybody who has seen a performance of either Waiting for Godot or Endgame would know that Beckett isn't the most accessible of playwrights. Sure, I love his plays, but they seem to exist in a place that could effectively be considered nowhere. In a way he strips everything away and simply has a minimal amount of characters pretty much spurt rubbish and has us leaving the theatre, scratching our heads, wondering what on Earth had just happened. However, Stoppard takes Beckett's ideas and places them back in the real world. Okay, this is the only play of Stoppard's that I am familiar with (and his travesty that happens to be Shakespeare in Love simply doesn't count), but he helps us appreciate the absurdity of existence much better than Beckett was ever able to do, and it does it in a way that leaves us laughing.

All The World's A Stage

There are so many themes in this play that it is going to be impossible to be able to touch upon all of them, and anyway, I still have the film sitting in my cupboard that is probably going to come out again sometime so I that can explore this play again sometime in the future. However, I will try and touch upon a few themes that grabbed me this time around, and one of them happens to be the concept of the theatre. The thing is that the players are major characters in the play, and they explore something that Shakespeare in the past has explored - namely that we are actually players in a show in which we are the stars. However, the thing is that Stoppard's understanding of this stageshow is that it is an absurd comedy.

One of the things that comes out is that an actor ceases to be an actor unless there is an audience. The offense that the players took when our protagonists slipped away during a performance is tantamount. The thing is that without an audience they are little more than mad fools playing make believe. However, they simply had no opportunity to see that the audience had gone until there was a break in the performance. Up until that time they were simply so engrossed in playing their parts that there was no opportunity to see that their audience had vanished. In a way the only thing that gave them purpose, that gave them meaning, was the existence of the audience. Without the audience, there is no meaning to their existence.

Then there is the question of the roles that they play. When times are good they can pick and chose the roles that they will play, however when times are tough, the roles that they can play are limited, and if they are to survive, they need to be willing to literally prostitute themselves to anybody who is willing to give them money. This part of the play while, being quite sexually explicit, was more debaucherous than erotic. Eroticism is something that one can only afford when one has control - when one has no control, and one has no resources, it isn't eroticism, it is little more than prostitution. It is interesting that there players were effectively androgynous, with the exception of Alfred, who was the one that would be prostituted.

One of the lines that stood out to me in the numerous times that I have seen this play is that 'it all must end in blood'. While I will focus more on that a little later, the thing with the play, and the world being a play, is that it is an incredibly bloody play. While you can have rhetoric and romance, you cannot dispense with the blood - blood is demanded, and blood is essential. There is no happy ending in the play that is life - it all ends tragically for each and everyone of us. However, as I look at it, it is not a question of the fact that we all die, it is the way in which we die. While we die, we need to be in the mind that it is not our goal to escape death, but rather to die well. Unfortunately this is not always going to be the case, but more on that later.

The Importance of the Bit Players   

Unfortunately, unless you are one of the select few, we are all bit players in the play that happens to be our life. Sure, we may be the main characters, but in many ways we have little control in what is going on. In reality the world moves around us, and history inevitably marches forward, and many of us have little to no ability to change the course. This is one of the major themes of the play because our protagonists are simply powerless to not only change the destiny of others, but to change their own destiny. No matter how hard they try, the main players simply ride roughshod over them. They have to power to sway, or control Hamlet, and they have no power to be able to please the king. In a way, while they are players in the grand play, they have little to no ability to be able to sway the outcome of this play.

Yet one may argue that even the major characters have no power to change the course of history, In Hamlet it isn't Claudius, or Hamlet, or Gertrude, that has any power to change the end - the end has already been written, and they are inextricably drawn towards this end. No matter how much they try to change this ending, to introduce their own scheming plans, the end has already been written, and it is an incredibly tragic ending. However, while they are the actors, whose choices continually move them towards that tragic ending, they only exist with an illusion of freedom. However, they aren't spectators, they are the actors.

So, in come our protagonists, who are bit players. They have no control over the events, just as the main players have no control, yet they have an important role - they are the audience. As Horatio says at the end of the play, he is the one that has witnessed the events, and as a spectator, he is the one who is destined to tell the story to generations down the track. However our bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also have an important role - Stoppard has allowed them to tell their story, and it is a story of trying to make sense of the absurdity around them. Sure, they have no power over the events, but they are commentators on these events - they are attempting to understand the absurdity that is life, and helping us see the brighter side to this pitiful existence. They may not have any power, and their destinies are tragic, but they are able to help us see that life isn't always dark and miserable, but it is a comedy, albeit a dark comedy, of which we sometimes need to step back and laugh.

There Is Always the Blood

So, I should finish off with something that many of us try to avoid, yet is a certainty for us all - death. Our protagonists are correct when they chastise the players on the fact that they really don't understand death. Sure, they are able to portray death in many ways, but there are two things that they can't do - make it authentic, and make it watchable. The chief player points this out when he tells the story of the actor who had been condemned to death for stealing a sheep. They managed to convince the authorities to have him die on stage, but it didn't work, because his knowledge that he was going to die meant that he was not able to get in character. As our protagonists point out, they cannot really portray death because once the character dies, the actor gets back up again. They aren't the characters, they are just actors playing a character - a fraud, a realistic fraud, but a fraud nonetheless.

The specture of death hangs over the play from beginning to end. Starting off with the absurdity of them tossing 95 heads on a coin in a row, to the final scene where pretty much everybody dies (with the exception of the players). Yet it is a dark comedy, and we are laughing all the way through. The play helps us come to terms with the certainty of death. Sure, it doesn't offer us hope, or meaning, because in the absurdist comedies there is no hope or meaning, but it puts a perspective on the world in which we live - death is a certainty, there is nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just learn to enjoy life, to have a laugh, and to simply accept the inevitable.

However, one of the reasons that I can learn to love life, and to laugh, is because of my beliefs. However, the problem is that not everybody is in the position that I happen to be in - life is tough, and it is full of pain and heartache - we simply cannot expect people to simply laugh when a loved one is dying of cancer. However, I still believe that we are fooling ourselves if we live life as if there is no hope, and no purpose. I believe that there is a purpose, and while a majority of us happen to be bit players, having little to no power to change to course of events, we are reminded of the butterfly, the one whose wings flap that causes a hurricaine on the otherside of the world. You see, no matter how small a part we play, we all play a part, and we all have a purpose. The problem is that in most cases we simply will not see the impact that our actions will have in times to come.

Creative Commons License

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me