Archive for August, 2013

The art of the beholder

By accident rather than design several of the shows I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe dealt in one way or another with the way art acquires monetary value and bestows fortunes on some and misfortune on others.  Tom Wainright’s ‘Banksy – This Looks  a Bit Like An Elephant ‘ narrates the impact on a homeless man living in a disused water tank in the Hollywood Hills of having his home transformed into an art object courtesy of a few words spray painted by living legend Bansky.  However whereas the urinal that Marcel Duchamp transformed into one of his first ‘ready-mades’ was uninhabited, Banksy’s act of transubstantiation allegedly (the facts are disputed see here for example resulted in the water tank’s resident, Tachowa Covington, finding himself turfed out of his makeshift home when the lawyers move in to realise the art work’s instantly acquired value.

‘Banksy…’ deals with the (we must assume) inadvertent destruction of a man’s home due to the midas touch of an artist who takes delight in poking fun at the mechanics of the art market but thereby further serves, intentionally or otherwise, to increase his own market value.  Meanwhile Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse told the story of two con artists who are forced by circumstance (or so it seems) to turn their skill at dissembling to the world of forged art, relishing the opportunity to seemingly get away with the equivalent of insider dealing and systematic price manipulation without committing a crime.  A witty commentary on the concentric circles of greed that encompass the upright denizens of the art world, oligarchs and petty criminals alike, Long live… is a deft reminder that in the Peter Pan world of contemporary art, just as in global finance, the belief that something is valuable means that it is valuable, but only as long as there is someone who continues to believe enough to keep the price balloon inflated.

David Harrower’s Ciara, also at the Traverse, turns the art/money relationship on its head as the narrator, brilliantly played by Blythe Duff, unfolds her back story, one that has brought her into the world of dealing art to the legitimate, and not so legitimate, newly wealthy. She shows people who know they want art but don’t know what to buy, what they should want and the price tag provides the assurance that it truly is art.

All three shows deploy, to a lesser or greater extent, the familiar notion (e.g. as developed by the great french anthro/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that the ascription of value to artworks is a social practice that can’t be derived from either the content or the uniqueness of the art work itself.  Why does the forgery that no-one but the most diligent curator can spot suddenly lose its value to the person who bought it?  While it may retain its pleasingness as a work of art it has lost its exchange value, its confirmed value to others.   Long live… explicitly references this 9less than straightforward question, sometimes called the Van Meegeren problem. The irony, as Banksy… tells it, of Tachowa Covington losing the home which, until the artist spray painted it, had only use value to him and practically zero value to anyone else, is that in an instant it acquired tremendous monetary value simply because of who spray painted it.  That the imaginary values of traded art can, like the complex derivatives whose unraveling forced tens of thousands out of their homes, impact on the all too real lives of people without the tools to magic up value from a spray can is a very modern parable.

Norwegian film another Nordic screen success story

Scots have been looking enviously at Denmark’s film industry for some time.  A recent Scotsman comment piece was just the latest in a long line (dating back to 1938- see earlier post) of unfavourable comparisons between the Danes’ generous and joined up support for film and Scotland’s historically piecemeal and underfunded attempts to get more Scottish films on our and everyone else’s screens.

But Denmark isn’t the only Nordic country that takes film as seriously as the Danes.  Across the North Sea in Norway (population 4.7m) they don’t just have a national film fund (established in 2001)  they have six (yes SIX) regional film funds which add up to a cool €60m euro annual investment in film, tv, games and animation.  That goes some way to explaining the 25 films (average over 2007-12) they release each year (so that doesn’t even count those made but not distributed) and the 20% average market share they have enjoyed over the past five years.  So not quite as good as the Danes at 25% but compared to Ireland at just under 2% or Scotland at less than 1% it’s certainly enough to give us something to think about.  (While we’re at it European films’ share of the overall European market is on the rise and reached its high point last year, in no small part due to Skyfall it has to be said but also, more interestingly, the success of France’s Untouchable, the most successful non-English production of all time.)

With numbers like those above to build on, the Norwegian Film Institute weren’t indulging in boosterism or wishful thinking when they set out to ‘internationalise’ their industry in their 2012-15 plan.  This year they allocated around €1.5m in support to marketing of Norwegian films including €400K earmarked specifically to support presence at international markets and festivals.  Indeed back in 2000 an influential Government Green Paper concluded that:

Norway’s cinema system worked well as precisely a mixture of commercial and cultural interests, but underlined that a stronger, more directed national cinema policy was needed to secure the operations of this system.”  (quoted in Caroline Strutz Skei fascinating  Thesis Hollywood In Norway ).

Astute readers may object at this point that with a GDP 2.5 times Scotland’s its easy for the Norwegians to throw money at film and anything else they fancy.  Perhaps so but the fact remains that like most other European countries, at 0.012% they choose to spend a considerably higher % of GDP than we do at either a UK (0.0033%) or even more so a Scottish (0.003%) level.  (Denmark, whose GDP is only 50% higher than Scotland’s, spends 0.02% of GDP on film i.e. 6.6x as much), indeed they spend more in absolute terms than the Norwegians, despite a considerably lower GDP.

All well very well you might think but beyond their home turf are Norwegian films making any head way with audiences and critics abroad?  Oh yes they are.  Following last year’s Palm Springs win and Best Foreign Film Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Kon Tiki (Norway’s most expensive film to date), so far this year twelve films have been selected for A list festivals including Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian with five in official selection at Berlin alone.

Meanwhile at the UK box office Headhunters, a Norwegian/German co-production was the second highest grossing foreign language film in the UK after Untouchable, taking a respectable £1.44m (which put in perspective equals or exceed the UK Box office for The Imposter, The Wedding Video or Coriolanus).

Regular readers will be well aware that one hit doesn’t mean we’re about to experience a Viking film invasion along the lines of the current Nordic TV expeditionary force however their consistent investment and support to grow a domestic film industry is making raiding expeditions on the international market easier and more likely to pay off.  The growing success of Norwegian film at home and abroad is a salutary reminder that there is no recorded instance of a small (or indeed a large) country securing a consistent share of the international audience (on  big, small or portable screens) that hasn’t first built its own domestic share.  More on that anon.


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