Festivals #1 – Dinner with a side of famous writers

My first festival was the Mahomet-Seymour Fall Festival, all flashing lights, ride tickets, and fried food on sticks.  It was an exceptional time – we were allowed, even encouraged, to put our lives at risk on mechanical monstrosities, make eyes in the parking lot, listen to bad country, and shoot poorly maintained pellet machine guns for a dollar a go.


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Now that I live in Melbourne, there’s a festival for every week in the year, but festivals in southern Illinois and the Southern Hemisphere have plenty in common– a fixation on food, dangerously tight pants, and the facilitation of conversation and heavy petting.

The Melbourne Writers Festival is a particularly urbane and well-regarded example of the Melbourne festival.  Here, trams are a functional substitute for vomit-inducing teacups. Seafood and tapas replace corn dogs.  There are absolutely no guns, but stylish things make plenty of eyes at one another from behind thick-rimmed specs and lightly-upturned noses. Multisyllabic words (see!) flit through the air and spill out into blog posts.

It’s all very civilized, and that’s the point. Arts festivals are revivals for the converted – they give us the opportunity to compare levels of learnedness and hobnob with people of shared interest and advanced degrees. To be fair, the MWF incorporates walks, seminars, storytelling evenings, used book fairs, and interactive scribbling into a festival program with uncommon breadth (just ask the well-spoken, and physically-imposing China Miéville).  Still, the focus is on donning one’s best tweed and scuffed boots, enjoying a cleverly positioned word and a well-prepared dinner, and stealing an argument for your next book club.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of this.  A writers festival, for all else it does to sell books and encourage hangovers in the publishing industry, provides a rare public setting for a usually private activity.  We all come down to the city, order Spanish food we can’t afford or pronounce, talk about books we may not have finished, and are reminded that there are plenty of nerds like us, that reading and writing is alive and well.  We’re for it.


That's more like it.


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If you don’t have anything profound to say –

Fixing a lifetime of football fandom in less time than it takes to sip a latte.

Mortified at your lack of cultural knowledge?  Think chiaroscuro is a delicious Italian dish?  Melbourne’s Federation Square has a quick and public solution to your private shame – the 10 Minute Culture Fix.

[A Robert Leighton cartoon in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker gets at the general feeling of being the  uncultured kid at the sophisticate table]

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Games #1 – Too Much Fun

We at CFA recently came across one of the fresher side conversations of the venerable debate about what gets to be called art.  New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog asked a half-dozen intellectuals, industry-insiders, and people otherwise eligible for serious comment-making the question can videogames be art? Even without proper pundit credentials, we’ve invited ourselves along.

Though some respondents paid the question more attention than others, the panel of ‘avowed gamers’ almost unanimously felt that the debate had really moved beyond whether games had artistic merit – they were answering the wrong question. We hadn’t heard of BioShock until a couple months ago and we acknowledge that some games are are more Rambo than Rimbaud, but we still agree that the question of art eligibility is guffawable.

Of course video games can be art – games have poked and prodded our emotions and intellect through symbolic representation; they have plot, character, setting, drama, and can contain social criticism; they are often beautiful; they prompt conversations such as this one – thus, Art.

In no way does that end the discussion.  Of the issues that remain, we’ve tried out a few. Continue reading

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Museums #1 – Arcimboldo at the National Gallery

The National Gallery is a place for serious art.  Its scale is immense and it houses some great works.  Tourists all seem to agree on the aesthetic most appropriate for consuming Important Art.  Cross your arms.  Or put your hands behind your back, maybe.  Chin up.  Head cocked.  Squint your eyes, and lean in.  Exhale audibly.  Perfect.  Now tell me how the sculpture makes you feel. Fathers deliver half-read, half-fabricated accounts of Roman history.  Their children aren’t listening, but other museum-goers might be.  Clark Griswold is everywhere.

In this place of High Art, the Arcimboldo exhibit, which opened this weekend, is a welcome uncocking of heads.  The sixteenth century Italian artist was among the first painters of pretty things on tables and might even be called the first surrealist.  His heads are thematically composed bunches of fruits, vegetable, flowers, fish, and cured meats, somewhere between still-life, collage, and Magic Eye.  His portraits have the appeal of pointillism – individual works are different “shows” when viewed at a distance – with a sense of humor and a bonus art history lesson, but only if you want one (placards say that he painted his patrons in the trappings of abundance to symbolize their dominance over the natural world).

Most notable are three reversible works.  Viewed straight on, each painting is a table-top scene: a bowl of salad or a platter of suckling pig.  When turned on its head, though (there were mirror-topped boxes below the paintings to spare audiences cricked necks), each painting is transformed into a grotesque human curiosity, worthy of the a Coney Island freak show or (evidently) the National Gallery’s east wing.

Crowds shuffled quickly through the exhibit.  The volumes of voices were decibels higher than in other exhibits.  People seemed to feel free to make throatier, more honest appraisals of how they felt about a piece, or even, how it made them feel.  One friend, who regularly uses his lunch hour to wander the Gallery, leaned over to me and said that he’d never seen people smile so much in the museum.  I crossed my arms, cocked my head, squinted my eyes, and looked around the room.  I exhaled audibly and said that I liked the exhibit very much.

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Talking about Writing about Writing

On September 7th, Melbourne’s generally fantastic Wheeler Centre hosted an event for talking about writing about books.  The event in question, Critical Failure, was a mixed bag of a panel discussion about the state of literary criticism in Australia that prompted an audience member to open the question-and-answer period by calling it ‘boring.’

Whether or not the comment was fair or accurate, it’s not exactly unexpected to most that a group conversation about writing about other writing lacked power and direction.  The conversation did, however, provide further evidence for two of our pet ideas for Cultural Events and Lectures:

  1. Writers are (ideally) great at writing, not necessarily at speaking in front of large audiences unless their name is Billy Collins.
  2. If you wouldn’t tolerate the conversation over adult beverages in your living room, you’re probably not going to love it while sitting in an ergonomically-poor chair surrounded by strangers. Continue reading

The Case for the Performing Arts

Courtesy of TED Talks:

Key Points:

  1. Sometimes middle-aged men like symphony and pop-country.
  2. Knowing Judge Judy jokes are always good for a laugh.
  3. The internet (a) competes with the performing arts for our attention, (b) opens up the creative sphere to professional-level amateurs, (c) supports social causes, and (d) does everything else.
  4. There is a good business case for the performing arts.
  5. If you make these points without breathing for 12 minutes, we’re liable to find you persuasive.


  1. If everyone gets to play, does the overall quality of performance as a whole drop?
  2. If not, will there always be enough money to stage ambitious performances?
  3. How long until we grow tired of mentioning “the internet and the democritization of [insert anything]”?
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Baseball or Ballet?

Schools in rural downstate Illinois routinely bundle off middle-school students in chartered buses and send them north. Our teachers hid what must have been acute, ulcer-inducing anxiety and set us, aged twelve, loose on the cultural institutions of Chicago with a sack lunch and little else. We sat through a musical.  We were ushered into the shadow of great architecture. We wandered into and out of the art museum, but most of what I remember was a ham sandwich in the park, trying for a seat with the cool kids on the bus, and buying a t-shirt at the big city mall on the way home.

I felt like a bumpkin then, and not so much has changed.  I have incredible access to renowned performances, venerable institutions, and masterpieces – and I tend to be concerned with dinner, who’s sitting across the table, and what I’m wearing.  And why not?  Without a basic education in the arts, we can only be expected to have a basic understanding of what our parents loved – German church music or maybe Shakespeare – and a vague anxiety about how little we understand of Culture.  Other media comes easier and it’s usually more fun. Culture, however, was the reason our teachers risked lawsuits, abductions, and a long trip on a school bus with adolescents.  Years on, most of us are failing the field trip.

We started Culture for Amateurs because we suspect that we’re not the only ones who are insecure about High Art and Culture with a Capital C.  We’ve also become a bit skeptical. We’d like to find out what we weren’t taught – why our cultural institutions matter, if in fact they still do? Is ballet a better use of time than a baseball game?  Why go see Shakespeare, even Shakespeare in the Park? What separates the Ring Cycle from the Lord of the Rings? Why put on jackets we don’t own to go to the Philharmonic instead of staying home to watch Harry Potter DVDs in our sweatpants? Why do performances so packed with universal Truth and Beauty need a four-year degree to appreciate?

We believe that the arts should be like the adult version of the game Tag: enjoyable, interactive, mostly free of rules, and mostly fun.   We’re also willing to believe that it still has a place in society even if it appears as pointless as Tag.  It gives us a natural middle ground.  Not everything we read, watch, or listen to needs to start in the center, but we hope they can bring us to the middle for a chat or at least a good chase.

Everything else is up for discussion and a little bit of research. Culture for Amateurs will treat High Art and Culture the same way we treat everyone and everything else that works hard for our time and money.  We’ll give it our attention, then our scrutiny, and maybe our respect.  We’d like to know what we’re missing.  If we’re not missing anything, then we’re going out for a beer.

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