Mike Godwin observed that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and/or the Nazis.  His law has become an established part of modern media and Internet culture.

I would like to propose a new law which states that, given enough time, in any discussion about Irish nationalist or Republican issues, someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by calling its proponent a “West Brit”. And just as with Godwin’s Law, the use of this term means (a) the discussion has come to a conclusion and (b) the person who uses it has ipso facto lost the argument.

You OK with that, Martin McGuinness?  No, I didn’t think so.  (See this report.)

Lowry should read Bastiat

27 September, 2011

So former Fine Gaeler Michael Lowry is miffed that the Government has turned down the plan he was promoting for a super-casino in Tipperary. That’s not a surprise, nor is it a surprise that the present incumbents have taken the first available opportunity to stick it to Michael, given his disgraceful and self-serving support of the last Government.  Of course it’s always possible that the fact that Lowry (whom Matt Cooper described as the most disreputable politician he’d ever met) was involved had nothing to do with the decision, and that it was made entirely on its merits. Anyway, the decision was undoubtedly the right one, whatever the reasons for it.

The Irish Times reported that

Mr Lowry …. said he wanted to support plans that would bring an economic boost and up to 2,000 jobs to his Tipperary North constituency….Thurles Chamber of Commerce president Austin Broderick said the area was “totally devastated” by the Government’s refusal to allow a large casino. “It’s unreal. One thousand jobs gone down the Swanee…”

Here we go again, with alleged job creation/saving potential being used to justify everything from continuance of dodgy tax breaks to loss-making capital investments, to opening yet more shops.  John Kay has neatly disposed of similar fallacies (see here), but to see the rebuttal done elegantly and forcefully, one needs to travel far back in time and read the works of Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850), particularly his famous Parable of the Broken Window.

In Bastiat’s tale, a man’s son breaks a pane of glass, meaning the man will have  to pay to replace it. The onlookers consider the situation and decide that the  boy has actually done the community a service because his father will have to  pay the glazier to replace the broken pane.  The glazier will then presumably spend the extra money on something else,  thus helping the local economy. The onlookers come to believe that breaking  windows stimulates the economy, but Bastiat exposes the fallacy. By breaking the window, the man’s son has reduced his  father’s disposable  income, meaning his father will not be able purchase new shoes or some  other luxury good. Thus, the broken window might help the glazier, but at the  same time, it robs other industries and reduces the amount being spent on  other goods. Net result: a loss to the economy overall.

Building a super-casino in Tipperary may create jobs, but overall it will have a negative effect on the economy as it will divert limited investment capacity from more sensible (and more socially responsible?) projects which, as it happens, would also create jobs.

The following examples of illiteracy or barbarism were all encountered in the past two weeks.  I wish I could stop noticing such things.  Or even, dare I say it, stop getting bothered by them.  But I say, old chap, WE MUST HAVE STANDARDS!

First up is a stand at the Irish Antique Dealers’ Fair.  Presumably a Mr Yeat is somehow involved, but I’m not sure why he claims to own the country.  They surely don’t mean W.B. Yeats, and the part of Sligo associated with him?

Next is a greeting (sic) card, of the smutty variety.  The humour is somewhat spoiled by the failure to distinguish between “effect” and “affect”.  This is a common enough howler, I suppose, although it’s slightly depressing to see it writ large on a product which presumably went through many hands and took a lot of effort in its production.

Similarly, another blogger called Pencil&Spoon did a posting on a beer bottle label which was full of spelling and punctuation errors.  I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting liberally, as what he has written echoes my thoughts on such matters.

“What makes these mistakes especially frustrating is that the front of the label has obviously been well-designed and lots of effort has gone into it …. Even the paper it’s printed on is of a high quality. For this level of design and detail it must have passed by a few people and for none of them to spot those errors is just not good. As the front …. looks bold and well designed, I feel some confidence that the beer will also have had the same effort put into it. The shoddy spelling on the back makes me think again. ….I know some people aren’t good with spelling and grammar, I understand that, but there’s always someone around to take a look at it and check it…..Breweries: please try not to make spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes on your beer labels. …Even a small typo can send the message that you are sloppy and careless.”
Next up, when I saw the mass of warning signage and verbiage on a simple pool air mattress (we used to call them “lilos”), I became all nostalgic for the good old days when we were not treated like idiots and when judges didn’t entertain ridiculous personal injury claims by people who obviously qualify for the Darwin Awards (which “salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it).

I previously wrote about the various annoyances inflicted on passengers by Ryanair (see here and here).  The main one that bugs me is the failure to have either allocated seat numbers or, at the very least, to board passengers according to a ticket number issued as they arrive at the gate.  If my local butcher can do this, why can’t Ryanair? The cattle-like queuing at every Ryanair departure counter from about 30 minutes before boarding actually starts is a complete pain .

But now I am almost equally annoyed by the nonsense they go on with as regards cabin baggage.  Firstly, they try to catch you out by having a smaller than expected limit on cabin bag dimensions.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) standard hand baggage allowance is 56cm x 45cm x 25cm, but Ryanair allows just 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. This means that the bag you have used without a problem on Aer Lingus, easyJet or British Airways may not be allowed on a Ryanair flight.  And if you fall victim to this trick, they will charge you dearly for putting the bag in the hold.  Ryanair are practically the only airline not to follow IATA guidance on this.

Then there is their insistence on passengers putting absolutely everything in the single piece of hand baggage before you board: your laptop,  handbag, paperback book, duty free, camera etc all must be squashed into the bag.  Most airlines are not so demanding; Aer Lingus, for instance, says that “additional small items (camera, personal stereo, overcoat, handbag or laptop) are allowed”.  And the net result of Ryanair’s policy is that boarding is slowed down while passengers, having selected their seat,  extract from their cases the items they will need on the flight – books, iPads, magazines, personal stereos etc.

So at first I couldn’t understand Ryanair’s logic for the strict enforcement of this rule.  But light dawned on me recently, when it became apparent that the rule does not seem to apply at certain airports, and in fact “duty-free” shops at these airports advertise that a duty-free bag is allowed on all flights (including Ryanair’s it would seem) , in addition to the normal cabin bag.    Not surprising that they would make a point of this, as people are much less likely to buy stuff at airports if they are forced to squeeze them into an already full cabin bag.

So here is what I believe is happening.  Ryanair negotiates individually with airports for handling charges.  Airports kick up about Ryanair’s cabin baggage policy as it deters passengers from patronising the airport’s retail tenants, who are thus less able to pay the exorbitant rents to the airport.  Ryanair says: charge us less for handling and we will allow passengers to bring purchases on board separately.  Result: more money for Ryanair, higher rents for the airport, higher prices at the airport shops.

I have no documentary proof of this scam, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence.

It’s time to fight back!  Here is what all passengers should do: after being forced to put everything into the single piece of cabin baggage, make sure to take as long as possible extracting what you need when you arrive at the seat.  Don’t be afraid to block the aisle in so doing.  There really is no rush.  After all, if you hadn’t been the victim of Ryanair’s arbitrary and oppressive cabin baggage policy, you wouldn’t have to  cause a delay at all.  So take your time.  What are they going to do, throw you off for being a little bit slow and bumbling when you get to your seat?  Hardly.

If sufficient people were to fight back in this manner, Ryanair would find their turn-around time stretching out and causing them flight delays.  A hit to their bottom line, in other words.  The only thing that will get their attention.

So come on Ryanair passengers, stop being sheep, and give them a taste of their own medicine!

You may have read about a report prepared by Amárach Research which said that if consumers were to spend as little as €4 extra a week on Irish-produced goods then over 6,000 new jobs could be created. Minister for Enterprise and Jobs Richard Bruton formally launched the research in Dublin last Monday.

This prompted an Irish Times editorial urging us to Buy Irish, and the editorial was in turn criticised by a letter to the editor of 8th September .

The letter-writer was 100% correct in his scepticism about these developments, for such campaigns constitute a form of “soft” protectionism: if we are consistently willing to favour Irish products which are either more expensive or of lesser quality than the equivalent import, then we allow Irish producers to be less efficient than foreign competitors, and thereby almost ensure that they will not be able to compete with them in overseas markets.  This condemns Irish firms to being small-scale domestic producers.

Any campaign to Buy Irish is against the spirit (if not the letter) of the law governing the Single Market, and we have more to lose than to gain if other EU countries follow suit.

The Irish Times editorial did admit that “long-term prosperity depends on winning in world markets” but asserted that “a shot in the arm for the domestic economy is desperately needed in the short term”.  But what constitutes the short term?  Irish firms cannot postpone the achievement of greater efficiencies for even a short period, and I have no doubt that firms (under pressure from their workforce and the trade unions) will see any indulgence by the Irish consumer as an opportunity to postpone hard decisions.

More importantly, many of the inefficiencies and cost burdens under which Irish businesses toil are directly as a result of Government policy or inaction.  Whether it’s electricity costs, local government charges, unrealistic pay rates, gold-plating of EU directives or monopolistic legal fees, it is the government that is to blame for imposing high costs on Irish businesses, or allowing others to do so.

The “Buy Irish” campaign is a potential distraction from the meaningful reform that is needed to make Ireland competitive once again in the world marketplace; it should be regarded with suspicion, and treated as a red herring.

Art or engineering?

6 September, 2011

Having warmed to my theme with my recent posting on Dublin Contemporary 2011, I am wading further into the murky waters of contemporary art appreciation.

I recently had an opportunity to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  The building is, of course, remarkable and worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide would say.  And I was glad to have seen Jeff Koons‘ Puppy, a 12 metre high sculpture (executed in a variety of flowers on a steel substructure).

Unfortunately the top floor of the Guggenheim was closed, so I was restricted to a selection of the museum’s permanent collection.  And what was on show was shockingly bad.  It’s almost as if the curators had gone out of their way to select the most shallow and pretentious and obscure works possible.  It’s not even that there was no conventional painting or sculpture (I didn’t really expect any), it’s just that the exhibits were not exciting or interesting in any way.  Novelty, shock value and sheer scale seemed to be more important.

The main “attraction” is a giant installation by Richard Serra called “A Matter of Time”.  Sponsored appropriately enough by a steel company, it consists of eight bent minimalist steel sculptures . The work weighs about 1,200 tons, is over 430 feet in length and is possibly the largest installation to ever be housed in a museum gallery.

According to the museum’s website, “The artist used traditional geometric forms and models combined with new technologies to produce unconventional shapes….The shades of color of the works change as the weathering steel undergoes a gradual oxidization process….The relationship between sculpture and the human body is explored through scale, equilibrium, weight, and tension.”   Or maybe they’re just big steel sheets in wavy shapes.

While the installation of this work undoubtedly was a massive and costly project, it struck me as more of an engineering achievement than a work of art.  The Guardian newspaper did not agree, and claimed that “on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century.”

And as I discovered later, Mr Serra’s steel statements are not universally appreciated.  In downtown St Louis in the USA, for instance, debate is raging about the merits of a Richard Serra sculpture called Twain.  One report claimed that:

“The installation is universally despised by St. Louisans, with the exception of a few art theory types who doubtless hate it too, but cannot bring themselves to admit a piece of contemporary art might be bad. Were Sam Clemens around to see his namesake he would doubtless sue the artist for defamation of character. Newcomers to the city without exception mistake the rusted steel slabs for a patch of blighted landscape. Others believe the work’s graffiti-scarred walls (much of the graffiti reads “Get rid of this!”) mask a sloppy construction area. Serra sculptures have been knowingly and legally removed from other cities after long and persistent public outcry, but in St. Louis the pressure from local art groups not to give in to the philistines is strong and has thus far carried the day.”

The Twain installation demonstrates how any piece by a famous artist can generate its own mystique among art insiders, even if it is dull, ugly, monstrous and non-challenging.  And people now feel they must see “A Matter of Time” in Bilbao because of the narrative surrounding it, and not for any intrinsic worth or because it gives them any great pleasure.  It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

In Britain, Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries have tabled amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill which, if accepted, could result in a delay to women seeking an abortion.

The amendment will require GPs to refer women with  “crisis pregnancies” to independent organisations who do not themselves carry out the abortions, rather than refer them directly to an abortion provider. The proposal’s alleged aim is to ensure that advice and counselling is not carried out by organisations which may have a  “vested financial interest” in women going ahead with abortions, and to ensure that women are presented with  “all the information” by unbiased organisations.

However, Marie Stopes International believe that the proposed amendments risk limiting women’s access to expert counsellors who are trained in sexual and reproductive health.  They reminded politicians that the critical point was that women have rapid access to impartial, non-directive and expert advice from trained counsellors, if they decide they want it.

Last week, Suzanne Moore in The Guardian wrote an angry (and very frank) piece about the proposed changes and what she sees as their sinister motivation (It’s the same old game. Get your rosaries off my ovaries, as we used to say.)  Below is an extract.

This whole debate around counselling pivots on the idea of deep and private shame, positing the idea of counselling being used to sell an evil procedure. Women are always “vulnerable” dupes, never simply adults who have made decisions. Some weird pension analogy has been brought in, though health care is nothing like it as advice and services do often come from the same people  ie: doctors.

The truth is that, in theory, the argument about abortion is won. Most people, however uncomfortably, support a woman’s right to choose.  We feel that pushing a woman to give birth to a child she does not want is heartless. We know the lengths women go to. The moral cowardice of the Irish polity results in those women, often alone and shivery, whom you see on Ryanair flights.

There is little point trying to persuade those who are religiously opposed to abortion (though I am intrigued at the Catholic attitude to the foetus – miscarried babies are not buried as they are not baptised) but we can simply remind ourselves we are living in a largely secular democracy.

The secular democracy she refers to is, of course, Britain and not Ireland.  Irish politicians have dodged this issue for decades, leaving the Supreme Court to make all the running, and leaving gaps in the process.

As I commented previously, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily,  recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

But too many people continue to pretend otherwise.  For them, I finish with Suzanne Moore’s bitter comment:  “Loving the unborn more than the born is politically convenient, as the unborn do not have to be housed or educated or parented.”

Dublin Contemporary 2011, which is allegedly the largest contemporary art event ever staged in Ireland, opens on 6th September, and the signs are not good.  One hesitates to join in the criticism of much of the “contemporary art” that galleries see fit to display, for fear of being thought a reactionary or a camp follower of Brian Sewell.  But here goes anyway.

With the benefit of decades of observation and analysis, albeit that of an amateur, I have reluctantly come to this view: the majority of contemporary art, and most Conceptual Art (particularly installation art, performance art, and electronic/digital art), is pretentious, boring and shallow.  Emperors with no clothes.

I’m with Ivan Massow, the former Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who in 2002 branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat” and said it was in “danger of disappearing up its own arse ”.  Massow was forced to resign as a result of his comments.

Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times wrote about the upcoming event back in June, and his words gave little hope that Dublin Contemporary 2011 would break the mould:

Tania Bruguere has proved to be controversial with performances pieces that – separately – encouraged criticism of the Cuban authorities and involved the use of cocaine – she also sought to employ a live firearm in one show but was, unsurprisingly, refused. Danish art group Superflex devise direct social interactions that entail specific actions or commitments from the public. Teresa Margolles makes powerful works about the systematic murder of young women in north Mexico.

In terms of spectacle, there should be plenty to look at with, for example, Maarten van den Eynde’s Plastic Reef project, an ever-growing accumulation of waste plastic packaging that has proved to be thought-provoking. There should be spectacle, as well, in David Zink Yi’s (his heritage is Peruvian, German, Chinese) giant sculpture of a squid, made from ceramic and incorporating glazed plates, referencing food as a signifier of cultural identity….

Ominously, though, it has to be said that many of the featured artists habitually make elaborate, idiosyncratic installations with exhaustive theoretical rationales, the kind of work that is generally beloved by curators of international group exhibitions but may not find a corner in the heart of the casual viewer.

That’s putting it mildly.

Private Eye has a satirical cartoon series entitled Young British Artists which features a group of self-obsessed and self-promoting “chancers” and which mocks the works and attitudes of modern British artists.  But much of the prose on the official website of Dublin Contemporary 2011  would be a candidate for a different part of Private Eye, namely Pseuds’ Corner:

The title and theme of Dublin Contemporary 2011 is Terrible Beauty—Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance. Taken from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “Easter, 1916”, the exhibition’s title borrows from the Irish writer’s seminal response to turn-of-the-century political events to site [sic] art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills. The second part of the exhibition’s title underscores Dublin Contemporary 2011’s emphasis on art that captures the spirit of the present time, while introducing the exhibition’s chief organizational engine: The Office of Non-Compliance. Headed up by Dublin Contemporary 2011 lead curators Jota Castro (artist/curator) and Christian Viveros-Fauné (critic/curator), The Office of Non-Compliance will function as a collaborative agency within Dublin Contemporary 2011, establishing creative solutions for real or symbolic problems that stretch the bounds of conventional art experience.

The Office of Non-Compliance, located within the Earlsfort Terrace exhibition site, will function as a promoter of ideas around a laundry list of non-conformist art proposals. The Office’s practice will be fuelled by the idea that not only has the world been transformed in the last few decades, the very concept of change itself has changed utterly. This element of the exhibition looks to highlight less conventional, largely artist-led models of art discourse, production and presentation. The Office of Non-Compliance will include ad-hoc, accessible structures for discourse around art and its place in society, such as a Bank of Problems, a Bank of Possibilities, One Problem a Week and a curated forum exploring one topical problem per week.

The bullshit quotient in the above extract is high, as might be expected (although the author apparently doesn’t know the difference between “cite” and “site”).  And, judging from the above, you can bet your life that Dublin Contemporary 2011 will be choc-full of works which will (according to their creators) make important statements about politics, economics and social injustice.

Yet Robert Hughes, as long ago as 1992, disposed of the argument for art as an agent of political and social influence.   The following extract is from his angry but totally coherent book, Culture of Complaint:

It seems to me that there is absolutely no reason why a museum, any museum, should favour art which is overtly political over art which is not. Today’s political art is only a coda to the idea that painting and sculpture can provoke social change.Throughout the whole history of the avant-garde, this hope has been refuted by experience. No work of art in the twentieth century has ever had the kind of impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did on the way Americans thought about slavery, or The Gulag Archipelago did on illusions about the real nature of Communism. The most celebrated, widely reproduced and universally recognizable political painting of the twentieth century is Picasso’s Guemica, and it didn’t change Franco’s regime one inch or shorten his life by so much as one day. What really changes political opinion is events, argument, press photographs, and TV.

The catalogue convention of the nineties is to dwell on activist artists “addressing issues” of racism, sexism, AIDS, and so forth. But an artist’s merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin colour or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public.  The HIV virus isn’t listening.  Joe Sixpack isn’t looking … The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted… it consists basically of taking an unexceptionable if obvious idea — “racism is wrong”, or “New York shouldn’t have thousands of beggars and lunatics on the street” – then coding it so obliquely that when the viewer has re-translated it he feels the glow of being included in what we call the “discourse” of the art world.  But the fact that a work of art is about AIDS or bigotry no more endows it with aesthetic merit than the fact that it’s about mermaids and palm trees.

.….In any case, much of the new activist art is so badly made that only its context — its presence in a museum – suggests that it has any aesthetic intention. I know that such an objection cuts no ice with many people: merely to ask that a work of art be well made is, to them, a sign of elitism, and presumably some critics would theorize that a badly made work of art is only a metaphor of how ratty the rest of the world of production has become, now that the ethic of craftsmanship has largely disappeared, so that artistic ineptitude thrust into the museum context has acquired some kind of critical function.

I will no doubt visit Dublin Contemporary 2011.  And I am equally sure that I will be saddened, frustrated and even annoyed by the experience. You, dear reader, can decide whether this makes me  a sad and grumpy reactionary or the equivalent of the young child who points out that the emperor has no clothes.