Culture and jihad, grimly connected though the art market’s “blood antiquities”

(K. Brent Tomer),

WHEN ISLAMIC STATE made its deadly onslaught on Paris on November 13th, this was rightly denounced as an attack not just on innocent human beings, but on civilisation. The killers struck in the heart of a city whose museums, monuments and ancient places of learning speak of lofty ideals and human creativity at its most refined.

But what if there is a deadly and growing connection between the high culture epitomised by great Western cities and the nefarious purposes of the group known as Islamic State (IS), ISIS, ISIL or Daesh? In February the United Nations Security Council formally listed the traffic in antiquities from Syria as well as Iraq as one of the ways in which terror was being financed, and it enjoined member states to stop the trade by any means possible.

America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, at least, took that instruction seriously. In August, it issued a dire warning to American art dealers, saying that if they traded in…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Culture and jihad, grimly connected though the art market's “blood antiquities”


Bohemian Rhapsody’s long legacy

(K. Brent Tomer),

IS THIS the real life? Is this just fantasy? The four members of British rock band Queen could be forgiven for asking themselves those questions on November 29th 1975, forty years ago today, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” became their first number one on the UK Singles Chart. At five minutes and fifty-five seconds in length, with distinct ballad, opera and hard rock sections—and a pensive intro and coda, for good measure—the song was not for listeners in a hurry. Nor was it an instant success. The LP spent four weeks climbing through the charts before reaching the top. But there was one thing that was immediately obvious about “Bohemian Rhapsody”: nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before.

The single aroused mild curiosity in America, where it reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. But British listeners were enthralled by the intricacy of the overdubbed harmonies, the energy of the climactic guitar solo, and the oddity of a multi-tracked chorus chanting the names of an Italian Renaissance astronomer (Galileo Galilei), a character from a nineteenth-century opera (Figaro), an Islamic prayer (bismillah) and…Continue reading

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Non-binary language in a binary world

(K. Brent Tomer),

“ZOOLANDER 2” will be out in February, bringing Derek Zoolander and Hansel (played by Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson respectively) back to the screen as a pair of airheaded male models. Besides the potentially unwise attempt to revive the quirky fun of the first movie, which came out in 2001, the filmmakers have fallen on the wrong side of a fast-moving social change, with its own vocabulary that some young people are perfectly up to speed with, but which many older folks (Mr Stiller is 49) have yet to master.

The western world has seen a lightning fast revolution in, first, the acceptance of gay people, and more recently, the visibility of transgender people. The latter group has a new pinup in Caitlyn Jenner, who won a gold medal as Bruce Jenner in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. Those comfortable with trans people know to call Caitlyn “Caitlyn” and “she”, reserving “Bruce” and “he” to discussions of the past. The embrace of Caitlyn has been astonishingly rapid, with only a few daring to say a cross word. (Germaine Greer, a feminist whose heyday was in the 1970s, was a rare vote of dissent in saying that “Just because…Continue reading

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow on what went wrong

(K. Brent Tomer),

“THE moment he saw the flames in Kiev,” says Natalia Solzhenitsyn, “he would have died on the spot.” The widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is considered a vigorous defender and interpreter of the views of her late husband, the Russian novelist and critic of the Soviet Union who died in 2008. Ms Solzhenitsyn spoke with The Economist this summer for two hours in the Moscow flat where her husband was arrested in 1974 before going into exile for 20 years. Given the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, and especially especially the complex standoff that has led both NATO allies and Russia into the fighting in the Middle East, Ms Solzhenitsyn’s words are worth hearing.

“The flames in Kiev” refer, of course, to the violence in Ukraine’s capital during the revolution there early last year. His widow imagines how the old man would have reacted to the rift between Ukraine and Russia. Three of his great-grandparents were Ukrainian. “He grew up amid the sounds of the Ukrainian language.” He would surely have seen today’s civil strife between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the south-east of the…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow on what went wrong

Seize the day

(K. Brent Tomer),

Sign of the times

THE dingy back alleys of Havana are a far cry from the city’s middle-class Vedado district and its Hotel Nacional, and an unlikely home for a hip international art gallery. But on November 27th Galleria Continua, an avant-garde group from San Gimignano in Tuscany that shows Anish Kapoor and Michelangelo Pistoletto and has offshoots in Beijing and Boissy-le-Châtel, an hour’s drive south of Paris, opened its newest space in the renovated Águila de Oro cinema. The chunky Soviet-era projectors have been left in place on the top floor, and the detritus of film canisters and decaying seats has been whipped into a floor-to-ceiling hurricane installation by José Yaque, a young Cuban artist.

Continua’s opening is just the latest sign that the global art world—which, on December 3rd, will gather at Art Basel Miami Beach, America’s buzziest art fair—is on to Cuba. Collectors, dealers and museum curators have been flocking to Havana. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties between America and the Caribbean island in earlier this year mean that interest in Cuban art can only grow.

Many of the…Continue reading

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(K. Brent Tomer),

Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). By Marion Nestle. Oxford University Press; 508 pages; $29.95 and £19.99.

MARION NESTLE’S heavyweight polemic against Coca-Cola and PepsiCo comes at an odd moment for the industry. Americans are drinking fewer sugary sodas—in 2012 production was 23% below what it had been a decade earlier. Even sales of diet drinks are losing their fizz, as consumers question the merits of artificial sweeteners. From one angle, it would seem that health advocates such as Ms Nestle have won. Yet in America companies still produce 30 gallons of regular (not diet) fizzy drinks per person per year. In many countries, particularly developing ones, consumption is on the rise.

Ms Nestle, a professor at New York University, is both heartened by recent progress and dissatisfied with it. That is no surprise. Her first book, “Food Politics” (2002), remains a bible for those who bewail the power of food companies. In her new book she attacks the industry’s most widely consumed, least healthy product. “Soda Politics”, she says, is a book “to inspire readers to action”. As a…Continue reading

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Dust to dust

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. By Thomas Laqueur. Princeton University Press; 711 pages; $39.95 and £27.95.

THOMAS LAQUEUR, a professor of history at University of California, Berkeley, opens his new book with the story of Diogenes the Cynic, a philosopher from ancient Greece who asked his friends not to bury his body when he died, but to throw it out for the beasts. When they demurred, he mocked them. He knew that corpses are insensate matter, nothing more; loam, as Hamlet said later, with which to stop a bunghole.

Death, Mr Laqueur insists, has never been a mystery. Dust to dust, says the Christian burial service, whatever it says about the resurrection of the body. The real mystery has been peoples’ resistance to what they know. Though he concentrates on North America and western Europe (largely England and France), Mr Laqueur shows that, in every age and place, people have always needed their corpses. Sacred or secular makes no difference.

Believers in a bodily afterlife may seem to have the edge. But atheists have matched them bone for bone, especially the bones of their rationalist philosophers. Voltaire, for example, exhumed in 1791 and carried in Roman pomp to the Panthéon, France’s secular temple to the revolution; or the body of Karl Marx himself, buried in Highgate cemetery in…Continue reading

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A darker shade of blue

(K. Brent Tomer),

Let it not become paradise lost

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy. By J.J. Robinson. Hurst; 336 pages; £16.99.

TROUBLED paradises dot the tropics. Equatorial Guinea, Haiti and the Solomon Islands are just three examples. Add to that list the Maldives, a micro-nation blighted by repression, political gangsters and, increasingly, Wahhabi extremists. Life on the islands in the Indian Ocean can be stultifying. Bored youngsters in Malé, the crowded capital, are heavy consumers of brown-sugar heroin. Few places look quite so fragile environmentally. A fire last year at the country’s only desalination plant left it with almost no drinking water.

 Yet the story of the Maldives is complicated, because the islands also offer real glimmers of hope. Since the 1970s the small population, around 350,000, has built a luxury-tourist industry that is worth $2.5 billion a year. Maldivians are easily the most prosperous of all South Asians; the country draws Bangladeshis and others to work there. While he was president, Mohamed Nasheed, a bright figure, did much to champion concerns…Continue reading

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O come all ye faithful

(K. Brent Tomer),

Augustine: Conversions and Confessions. By Robin Lane Fox. Basic Books; 672 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30.

AN INTELLECTUAL colossus of late antiquity, Augustine of Hippo straddled many worlds. Born in north Africa in a town of Romanised Berbers, he moved confidently around the empire’s Italian heartland, which although under terminal threat was still a very sophisticated place. He was sufficiently clever, eloquent and sociable to have made a grand worldly career; instead he devoted his life to articulating a philosophical system that fused Greco-Roman ideas with those of Semitic monotheism. He was a sensual man who embraced celibacy, while rejecting world-views that divided the material from the spiritual. He could speak with magisterial authority and great vulnerability.

Robin Lane Fox, a historian of classical antiquity at Oxford University, finds him captivating. This is not for spiritual reasons (he does not share his subject’s faith) but because of the light Augustine shed, in more than one sense, on the dying imperium. His is the best-known life in the ancient world.

This…Continue reading

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