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It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.

–         Great words from a great man.

Holding back from writing a blog comprised entirely of Oscar Wilde quotations (very tempting), I’m going to sidestep towards an upcoming show to raise a few questions. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 at the V & A is going to delve into an unexpectedly unconventional ethos. Art For Art’s Sake? Or Art For Beauty’s Sake? The latter, I feel, would be the case in point here. Under the figureheads of such artists and creatives as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Morris and, of course, poster boy Oscar Wilde, beauty became fashionable in the high Victorian period. Sounds obvious, and not exactly newsworthy, but the late 19th Century really was a high point for vice over virtue. It would be wrong to say that opulence was a completely new thing – just look at the Elizabethan or Medieval periods for proof – but it was used for a different purpose, that is, no purpose. Before the Victorians, decadence was often a glorification of the religious and spiritual, in iconography, ceremonies or lavish cathedrals. Decadence in the high Victorian era – not only in fashion and jewellery but also architecture and interiors – overshadowed the grim reality of life just simply because. As the V& A exhibition will showcase, there was no place in the Aesthetic Movement for any lowly chimney sweep or maid. This was a time for the house proud to let rip, and indulge in the fanciest designs in town. Before our times of rebellion and idiosyncrasy – our Raindance Film Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringes, Anti Design Festivals…. – let us not forget that there was a time when  perfection was everything.

But let the porcelain skin and rosebud lips not fool you – there’s a big HOWEVER here. Two words: Dorian Gray. It’s often noted that the death of Oscar Wilde was the death of the Aesthetic Movement. True, to a certain extent. But surely anyone who reads Wilde will know his distrust of surface beauty? Quotations from his novels, short stories, essays and articles are everywhere, and we all love them:

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

“All art is quite useless.”

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

….and yes, I could go on. The point is, when we read them, we have a little chuckle to ourselves. Because they’re ironic comments on society’s ridiculousness. You’re not supposed to take them at face value. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy was his obsession with a decadence which he very well knew was full of vice. He wrote about it again and again.

Let me tell you, in brief, the story of The Young King:

Once upon a time, there was a Young King. A veritable Adonis in appearance, nothing pleased him more than to simply gaze – at his own appearance in the looking glass, his coronation robe of tissued gold, his ruby-encrusted crown, his rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty….and then back again to his reflection, the polished mirror held up by a laughing Narcissus made of green bronze. One night, following his coronation, the Young King had a dream. He came, in his dream, upon three scenes: a pearl diver, killed by exhaustion as he returns on the ship with the pearl for his own sceptre; gaunt weavers with sunken cheeks, at the looms in a darkened room, working on his own golden robe; hoards of men searching for rubies for his own crown, while Death and Avarice watch over. When the Young King awoke, and his servants prepare to put his robe on his back, he refused, remembering his dream. And the courtiers were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting. “There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl,” he said…..this is Wilde’s own commentary, his thoughts despite his contrary lifestyle choices.

And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who sold his soul, and every bit of good in him, for everlasting youth and beauty. We know what happened next.

So it’s interesting to think of beauty in art. Oscar Wilde, in the height of the Aesthetic Movement, expressed (often ruefully) how “All art is quite useless,” because all art, in their eyes, should be beautiful and only beautiful. Nowadays, we’re supposed to engage in art beyond its surface impression – look into the concept behind, experience the process, question it and let it make us question ourselves. Beauty is pretty much bottom in the pecking order in the list of priorities. Strangely, anything ‘beautiful’ now is labelled craft, and often thought lesser because of it. Now, we prefer ugly. One example: the 2009 Turner Prize winner, a gorgeous gilt decorative wall by Richard Wright, intricately patterned in traditional and decadent style. People were mildly surprised – and why? Because it was so beautiful they couldn’t imagine it could possibly have sufficient conceptual depth to be a Turner Prize winner. In-keeping with the Wildean ethos, beautiful and good became, for a moment, mutually exclusive – they (the Victorian Aesthetes) chose the beauty (“It is better to be beautiful than to be good….”)….I guess we like to think we choose the good. And to prove this point further, we also like to value ugliness.

This October, for example, The Future Can Wait, an edgy alternative to Frieze, will be taking place in the eerie basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, in trendy East London. Its disturbing works, from performance and video to site specific installation and painting, all share a definitively un-pretty aesthetic. The grotesque and the sinister, dispelling the glossy allure of the traditional art fair, all come to the forefront in this year’s line-up of 30 artists, including The Future Can Wait stalwarts Tessa Farmer, Sam and Luke Jackson, Gavin Nolan and John Stark, as well as newcomers Dale Adcock, James Howard, Jasper Joffe, Nika Neelova and Wendy Mayer. Check it out for a taste of something different this Autumn.

Over in Piccadilly, the ominous and eerie will again reign supreme in Maurizio Anzeri’s exhibition The Garden Party, which will be set in Q, a new gallery space converted from an old-fashioned bookshop, dusty shelves in tact. Maurizio’s sculptures, made of synthetic hair, are menacing yet weirdly alluring, creating the kind of garden party to have the Victorian Aesthetes up in arms.

If the creatives of the late 19th Century were the Cult of Beauty, what does that make us now? The Cult of Ugly? Does that make us more ethical human beings? I fear not. Though an unshakable fan of Oscar Wilde and all his writings (well, most), there is one thing I have to disagree with him on: beauty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Neither are ugliness and sin. Nor are sin and morality, even. I’m afraid you just have to look past the surface, and, sometimes, step out of your comfort zone. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge an artwork by its exterior. Even if it’s an ugly one.

Images:

Lady Lileth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (c) Stark

(c) Maurizio Anzeri

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If you’re chatting loudly enough for me to hear, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a private conversation.

The Bugged initiative, a new project in celebration of eavesdropping, has got me very excited indeed. On the 1st July, writers (in the loosest sense imaginable….meaning anyone who can hold a pen….meaning YOU) are being asked collect snippets of conversation you’ve heard during the day and pen them as either poetry, prose, or script – poems of up to 60 lines, stories up to 1,000 words, flash fiction up to 150 words, scripts up to five minutes long.

The judges are National Poetry Day director and Glastonbury festival website poet-in-residence, Jo Bell, and novelist and playwright David Calcuttthe, and they’ll be selecting the best to be posted on the Bugged blog, and the very best to be published in October in a printed anthology.

Think of the yawnsome hours spent in sweaty tube carriages, noisy buses and stuffy waiting rooms – languish no longer….pick up the pen and write! Some people are naturally inquisitive/ ear-sensitive/ nosy, some people are natural writers…..in this project it is advantageous to have both venerable qualities – but if you’re not in this camp, there’s a great collaboration to be made, I’m sure of it.

Things to remember:

1. “Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.” Fran Leibowitz advises you not to pen your own life…try someone else’s instead.

2. As Daphne Du Maurier once said, “Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.” Try not to piss anyone off tooooo much. Discretion is the magic word.

3. Submissions open July 2nd, and close August 15th. Keep an eye out (and an ear) right here.

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From early Renaissance scenes of the Last Supper to Dali’s Lobster Telephone and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, food has always been on the canvas, as well as the mind. It’s time for the relationship between the palette and the palate to be brought to the table.

Historically, art can tell us how the cavemen ate, what the Romans drank and why gout was such a fashionable (i.e. unavoidable) disease among the Edwardian elite. Culturally, art reveals just how creative dining has always been – haute cuisine is no new phenomenon.

Through ancient history, people prided themselves on creating dishes as appealing to the eye as to the tastebuds (admittedly often far more). And this was evident in the art of the day – a showcase of the edibles à la mode, left for all to ogle for years to come. Call it still-life, call it whatever you will, the focus was often the realistic depiction of the plate, and historians will always be thankful for precisely that. Before film or photography, painting and sculpture were the ways to visually record life, from a scientific experiment to a lavish feast. So, wanting to be remembered for their epic shindigs, wealthy party hosts became wealthy art patrons.

One thing that comes to mind when the words “food” and “art” flash before me is the idea of movements and fashions. Even in the last few decades, we’ve see the coming in and going out (and sometimes the resurfacing) of trends such as Prawn Cocktail and Pina Colada, Art Deco and Kitsch. The idea of ‘fashionable food’ makes the chef as much of an artiste as the designer or artist, subject to (or responsible for) the whims of the dining/ gallery-going public. Heston Blumenthal, for one, can probably take a lot of credit for the recent return of the Soda Stream, following his marvellous transformation of the cheap ’80s white wine, Blue Nun, through carbonation, into a faux champers.

Last night I had the pleasure of an 8-course taster menu at Pearl, the swanky restaurant headed up by chef extraordinaire Jun Tanaka. I make no hesitation in saying that the dishes were gorgeous to eat, but more notable was how intriguingly complex and genius they were in both visual and taste composition. An amuse bouche of heritage tomato jelly, with a tomato crisp, a light cheese foam and basil sorbet was amusing to both the bouche and the brain to decipher….and that was just the beginning of the savoury exhibition. At the San Francisco Museum of Art Café you can get Mondrian Pound Cake – why get out your paintbrush to imitate the artist when you can get out your wooden spoon instead?

Heston and Jun, along with Michel Roux, Michel Roux Jnr., Raymond Blanc, Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Marco Pierre White…..are who we think of as modern day celebrity chefs, but they comes from a long line of kitchen superstars. Food as aesthetic creation is no new thing.

The only difference is the thousands of TV channels, iPods, 4oDs and iPlayers now constantly putting it into the popular consciousness.

Martino da Como was, in the 15th Century, the first “celebrity chef.” Martino’s elevation to the “Prince of Cooks” made his Liber de Arte Coquinaria one of the bench marks of early European gastronomical literature (a.k.a. cookbooks). Later, in the height of the French Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême surpassed this “Prince,” becoming known as “The King of Chefs.” Carême was an early pioneer of the elaborate style of cooking known as haute cuisine, the “high art” of French cooking: a grandiose style favoured by both international royalty and the nouveau riche of Paris.

…..Now, for fear of this becoming a history lesson, there is one indefinable, intangible thing that both a painting and a pâtisserie have the power excite in equal measure, with no consideration of fads or fashions: desire. Did you know that Dali’s Lobster Phone has an alternative name? Aphrodisiac Telephone. This says a lot for food-as-subject in general. Think neo-Classicist or pre-Raphaelite…gorgeous women lying around surrounded by platters, men with grapes dangling above their open mouths. In the painting and in the feast, it was all about having the cake. And eating it too.
Moving on a few centuries, desire in food art takes new forms. Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans epitomize precisely what I’m getting at. Desire becomes commodity in the age of consumption, but it is still the same thing, if only in a new, plastic-wrapped new form. Ralph Goings’ painting A-1 Sauce appears just as a few condiments bottles on a table. Not a conventionally romantic image, I’ll grant you, but eye-catching and thought-provoking. Just as modern art must question, prompt and intrigue, so must modern cuisine. And food in art, also, is as prevalent today as it always was, but serves a new purpose – to communicate an opinion, expose a truth or ridicule the ridiculous, rather than showcase the artist’s technical skill.
The imitation of the real in framed, elevated art is like the description in a menu of a dish you can’t quite afford – it just makes you want it more. Along with the human form, the serene landscape and the battle victory, the image of the edible is yet another object of desire. It’s all a question of taste.

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