Art


Rebellion Pastiche!

Rebellion Pastiche!

Many years ago now I lived in Newtown, Sydney, and the areas surrounding it (Stanmore, Marrickville, etc), all of which have a recent history as the home of a large number of Aboriginal people and a bit of a hotbed of street activism (far left and far right), largely probably due to their proximity to the University of Sydney, some large inner city areas of Aboriginal housing, and some industrial areas. Marrickville, where I also lived, has a long tradition of Greek, Italian and then Vietnamese migration, and the whole area is a wide swathe of light industrial zoning with a long and proud history of unionism. As part of the post-60s wave of Aboriginal rights and green activism a large number of murals were painted in various areas of the inner west. From the train line between Redfern and Newtown passengers used to be able to see a rendering of the Black Panther Olympic salute, entitled “Three proud men”; and on the road to Stanmore there was a really creepy old guy perving on a girl on a tricycle. But the most famous mural is the “I have a dream” mural, pictured above, which was painted on the side of a terraced house in the very centre of the main commercial road, King Street, very close to the station. This mural combines a picture of Martin Luther King, his most famous phrase, the earth with Australia red in the centre, and the Aboriginal flag (the black and red squares with the gold disc in the middle). It’s a bit tacky but also a proud reminder of Indigenous struggle, painted there by a local couple many years ago. In my opinion the Aboriginal flag is a really powerful symbol, and should be used as Australia’s official flag in place of the Southern Cross[1], which is nowhere near as cool, and this mural combines that strong image of Australia with a couple of international ideas about liberation and freedom. I’m not entirely in favour of importing American ideals of freedom and struggle to other countries, but I hope my reader(s) can see the intent and appreciate its strength.

Anyway, back when I lived in Newtown this mural was starting to decay, the paint was starting to crumble, but worst of all a lot of posters were beginning to appear, mostly on the bottom left of the red part of the flag but also in the golden disc. Rather embarrassingly, most of these posters were either for far left political groups, or for illegal raves (“doofs”) that would regularly spring up in the inner west and which were also largely associated with the far left/green movement. This was in the 1990s, before the Reconciliation movement had really taken off, probably 10-12 years before the apology, and a lot of the far left hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that Aboriginal reconciliation and land rights were becoming a really important part of the political landscape – Aboriginal activism generally was seen as strongly connected to the Labour party and the Democrats, and viewed with suspicion by the far left. This might explain their willingness to put up posters on such an iconic mural (the far right couldn’t, because they had either died of heroin overdoses, been sent to prison, or been driven out of the inner city by unionist violence). My friends and I weren’t happy with this though, because as the posters accumulated and damaged the paint, and the mural got scrappier, the incentive to post more posters and slowly destroy it was growing – like litter or broken windows, the damage was encouraging more damage. So one sunny Saturday morning we got up early, grabbed a ladder, some paintbrushes and a few scrapers and some paint, and set about restoring it. We didn’t organize it with any official organs because no one was officially in charge of this mural – we just rocked up and started cleaning it. The version you can see above is probably from about 10 years after we did this, because it is still clean and in the bottom left corner you can see my contribution to the project. That corner was where most of the posters were stuck, and after I scraped them off and we repainted it I wrote this in my bad freehand:

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

I took this photo of my contribution in 2006, probably 8-9 years after I painted it, just before I left for Japan, and at this time no one had posted any bills anywhere on the mural – you can see on the wall to the side that they are using nearby wall space for a thick layer of posters, but they aren’t putting them on the mural itself. Sadly, this situation no longer pertains today, another 8 years after I took that picture. The Marrickville facebook page has a link to the picture which in March this year had comments saying that someone needs to put the “Don’t poster here” order back on. Someone must have painted over it after I left the country, and now the posters are returning. However, after many years, the mural has finally received some official respect, and the Marrickville Council have decided to Heritage List it, which means that they are now officially responsible for maintaining and protecting it. I hope this means that the posters will be removed and no new ones added. Maybe they’ll even repaint it with a better and more consistent colour palette than my friends and I used …

This was my sole real contribution to the urban community of Newtown. My friends and I got pissed at the mess, went up there and (I guess!) risked a graffiti charge in broad daylight on a sunny Saturday to repair the damage. While we worked lots of people came up to thank us and express their approval (I think one person wandered across the road to buy us a coffee or a drink or something), and I guess the police must have cruised by at some point and done nothing. Everyone seemed to treat our efforts as if they were as natural as the presence of this unclaimed and unprotected mural in the heart of the little shopping area. It was like everyone accepted it and respected it, but everyone thought it was everyone else’s responsibility. Maybe that unfocused view of its place in Newtown is part of the reason that people were able to damage it without any trouble being raised – because everyone just assumed someone else knew who was responsible for its upkeep. But in truth no one was, and our action was the only time I know of in the entire time I lived in the area that anyone took responsibility for it. And it worked! That little two sentence demand I wrote there on the wall kept the entire mural clean and free of damage for 10 years, and my guess is that if someone hadn’t painted over it the mural would still be free of damage today. Now that it is Heritage listed I guess it will get a little plaque and a bit of care and respect, and my bodgy handwritten warning won’t be needed anymore. It will be forgotten soon enough, but I am proud of my little tiny effort in preserving an emblem of a struggle that, over the time I lived in Australia, really began to assert itself and push itself into the mainstream. I hope people will remember the long slow path to acceptance of Aboriginal rights in Australia when they look at that mural, and I like to think that my tiny contribution went a little way towards preserving that mural long enough for it to make the heritage list. Hardly a radical or brave act, it’s true, but I’m proud of my little tiny contribution to one of the most important political movements in Australian history.

fn1: It actually has official flag status, but is not usually used as such.

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell ...

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell …

Today Maryam Mirzakhani, aged 37, became the first woman ever awarded the Fields prize for mathematics, a prize that is sometimes described as the “Nobel prize of maths.” She was awarded the prize for her work on “Riemann Surfaces and their moduli spaces,” which you can look up in wikipedia but good luck with that. Riemann surfaces are a kind of manifold, which is a space that globally has a complex structure that cannot be easily described mathematically but that reduces locally to a Euclidean space. A good way to think about manifolds is as the problem of ironing your shirt. Globally, your shirt has a twisted and contorted structure which means you can’t conceive of it as a flat surface suitable for ironing; but you can fold out small sections of it into a simple plane, and iron those sections. Manifold theory is essential for higher work in physics, since quantum mechanical topology is not straightforward. The wikipedia page has some nice examples of Riemann surfaces for basic functions plotted in the complex plane (that is, a plane with complex numbers). The example for the square root function shows an application of the theory of Riemann surfaces (I think): you can plot the real part of the square root on the vertical axis, and then obtain the surface for the complex part by a simple 180 degree rotation. For the average mortal, obtaining a result like that will probably make your eyes bleed. For Dr. Mirzakhani I guess it’s breakfast reading.

Dr. Mirzakhani first came to love mathematics in Iran, where she completed high school and undergraduate studies. I find it very interesting that the first woman to win the Field’s prize was educated in a nation that we westerners consider to be very sexist, and furthermore that she comes from a middle-income country. There are nearly a billion people living in high-income, supposedly comparatively gender-equal nations, but the first female Fields prize winner comes from a middle-income country with a bad record on women’s rights. I think this is indicative of two things: first of all, Iran’s strong support of science; and secondly, the west’s overbearingly sexist attitude towards maths and science. While we in the west like to pride ourselves on the equality of the sexes, it is my opinion that attitudes towards femininity and science in the west are still very backward, and there are major cultural and institutional factors that push women away from fields that they are perfectly capable of performing well in. We also see this in the world of gaming and nerd pursuits, where women are vastly under-represented. This problem does not exist in Asia, where women are encouraged to take up scientific and nerdy pursuits. Certainly in Japan, there is no question about whether a woman could or should do mathematics – it is to be encouraged and admired, and many forms of mathematics that we in the west would consider to be “advanced” or “optional” parts of education (and therefore, through institutional and cultural pressure, tend to select men to learn) are considered an essential and basic part of a woman’s education in Japan. I see this as an Asia-wide phenomenon, and I suspect that it is true of Iran as well that women are considered capable of mathematical achievement. In this aspect of gender equality, I think the west has a long way to go.

Dr. Mirzakhani is also a sterling example of another aspect of maths education that I consider important, and that I have written about before on this blog: it depends very strongly on the attitude of your teachers, and especially on their ability to get students engaged in mathematics and to keep them trained. Dr. Mirzakhani was not originally interested in mathematics, but had her interest fired by a brother’s stories and a teacher’s encouragement. She also was not initially very good at mathematics, but stuck at it, saying:

I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers

It takes time and encouragement to develop mathematical skills, and teachers who ignore the slower students because they assume they lack “talent,” or who discourage certain groups or people from taking up this field, are both denying their society the chance to deepen and broaden the level of cultural knowledge of an essential discipline, and also are denying the possibility of access to a beautiful and inspirational world of thought, simply on the basis of their own prejudices. Dr. Mirzakhani obviously benefited from a series of teachers who like to inspire interest and support effort, and don’t judge their students’ potential on the basis of poor early development or gender. The world needs more teachers like those who encouraged Dr. Mirzakhani. Dr. Mirzakhani herself commented on barriers to entering and staying in mathematics earlier this year, suggesting that they are not being lowered:

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

Hopefully this award will be another small step to breaking down some of those social barriers, and encouraging more women into mathematics.

The Guardian article on Dr. Mirzakhani also contains a very nice and powerful quote from another Fields prize winner, Manjul Bhargava:

The mathematics that has been the most applicable and important to society over the years has been the mathematics that scientists found while searching for beauty; and eventually all beautiful and elegant mathematics tends to find applications

I think the importance of beauty and aesthetic sense in driving discoveries in mathematics and physics is often understated, but when you listen to mathematicians and physicists talk it is clear that it is a really important part of how they conceive of problems and solutions. There is an unexpected and deep relationship between our sense of symmetry and beauty, and the deep truths of the natural world. This is also the reason that people who understand mathematics find it so compelling and almost mystical in its beauty, and why I think it is not just an issue of shrunken talent pools when some groups of people are prevented from fully enjoying this field – they are being held back from being part of something truly profound. It’s good to see that whatever barriers still exist for women entering mathematics in Iran or the west, Dr. Mirzakhani was able to overcome them and join this small group of people peering into the deep mysteries of our universe.

Is it just me, or has the Guardian embarked on a project of excessive tastelessness[1]? In the last two days they have shown video footage of 17 people dying in a hot air balloon (apparently you can see people jumping to their deaths) and of a man being dragged to his death by a South African police van. WTF? I don’t want to watch people die. I was always of the understanding that snuff videos were an urban myth. Call me crazy, but I don’t think media outlets should be showing footage of real people dying. I don’t want my death to be on film, and I don’t want to watch you die. Maybe occasionally there is some social value to watching you die, but in general I think your death should be something kept between you, your family and your god or gods.

I remember years ago some stupid American politician shot himself in the face in front of the media, and pretty much every Australian TV station chose not to play it. I recall one station even had a statement about why they “censored” the sight of a man blowing his brains out. What has happened in the intervening years that grainy footage of some holiday-makers having an otherwise great day ruined by their horrible fiery deaths has become news? Why do I need to see some kid in South Africa being murdered?

I think I can chalk this up as another example of how journalists and the media generally are losing track of reality. But let me say this: to the best extent that I can, I will try to avoid watching you die. Obviously, some stupid media may trick me into watching their horrid snuff films, but if I have any say over the matter, I will not watch you die.

I’m sure that will make you feel better when you do.

fn1: Obviously for a lot of people this has been a rhetorical question for a very, very long time now.

Last night I stumbled on this video of Bruce Dickinson, from Iron Maiden, singing William Blake’s Jerusalem with Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull) accompanying him on flute. It was performed at a Christmas concert at Canterbury cathedral last year. He performed GK Chesterton’s Revelations, the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s song of the same name, at the same venue, and this can be viewed on youTube as well. The performances are stirring stuff, though at times Dickinson over-eggs the pudding and you can tell he’s used to a slightly different venue, but if you like good British poetry and appreciate the New Wave of British Metal (NWOBM) then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment from these two short clips.

The songs also show very clearly the strong influence of British classical poetry on the direction the ‘Irons took under Bruce Dickinson. Listening to these songs is like listening to any of their more famous efforts, though obviously the lyrics are more skilfully crafted[1], and it’s clear that Iron Maiden drew heavily on their British heritage when they wrote their works. Their most famous songs are steeped in what could probably be broadly described as the cultural origins of modern Britain – the romantic poets, the modernists, and some of the key debates in colonial and Victorian Britain that shaped the growth of the post-industrial British world, all feature prominently as themes in Iron Maiden’s work. Sometimes these are direct translations to metal – as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and sometimes they are a pastiche of poetry and history, as in Revelations. In other cases they are merely inspirational material, as in The Trooper‘s interpretation of The Charge of the Light Brigade. But in all cases, these influences and thematic elements are obvious in the work.

British comedy, television and especially music is, I think, the strongest part of its modern culture, and even seemingly nihilistic and barbaric elements of it – like the NWOBM or modern genres such as britpop – can be seen as part of a cultural continuity stretching back 200 or more years. This continuity is often obscured by the blandishments of modern art – the gutter style of modern drama, the spandex and satanism of the NWOBM, or the very modern and superficial faux working class posturing of some of the reformed toffs of the britpop scene – and of course it is also unrecognizable in some of the less talented and more degenerate products of modern British culture. But at its finest, modern British art, comedy and drama shows a strong appreciation of, and indeed directly channels, that long cultural tradition. I think for those of us from newer countries like the USA or Australia, this long cultural continuity can be surprising and perhaps also something we can be envious of (hence Australia’s historic “cultural cringe”). It’s also something we don’t always notice or appreciate, being more focused on those things that are fresh or new. But I think Iron Maiden is a really exceptional example of this tradition, being on the one hand embedded in what is often seen as a nihilistic and cultural vacuum (heavy metal) while simultaneously enormously dependent on a long cultural legacy for its themes and artistic influences. It isn’t just a case of a diamond in the rough, but of the ability of a traditional and often conservative entertainment and cultural establishment to continually reinvent itself without losing its roots.

fn1: this may earn me a fatwa from the fan club.

The Guardian has a couple of pictures today of strange maps, which are pretty cool. My favourite is the map of the US in terms of distance from the nearest McDonalds, but in role-playing terms the railway one is pretty good. If the world were composed of city-states linked by potentially very wild trips on a wide range of steampunk-styled railway lines, I think you’d have a very weird and wild place for adventuring. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere meets Erewhon, or something.

This is just taking the piss out of a previous post, really… the latest storm doing the rounds is the discovery that one of the severed heads on the battlements of King’s Landing at the end of Season 1 is George Bush.

What’s better, I wonder, for an ex-President? Having a library named after you, or getting on Game of Thrones? Anyway, everyone has apologized profusely, so it’s all okay …

Not someone you want to go bowling with...

Twenty-five years ago today the Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television to warn us about the dangers of HIV. You can see the ad through this article about the anniversary. I was 14 at the time, and it was truly terrifying. I think it did its job, and scared Australians into sexual responsibility, though now that we have treatments and testing and the like, people may be beginning to become complacent again. Although it now seems a bit hammy, I think it also compares favourably with British health and safety adverts – it’s not as tacky, and makes its point much more succinctly and believably. I particularly like the nod to the holocaust when the narrator says it could kill more people than world war 2 – a nice touch, very understated but very effective.

There was some controversy at the time, because some people interpreted it as likening gay men to the Grim Reaper (at that time it was largely a disease of gay men), but unlike in the USA there was a much better relationship between government, health workers and gay activists, and the controversy didn’t damage the ad’s effectiveness. Of course now people think that the kinds of things being said in this advert were hyperbolic or alarmist, because Australia has largely escaped the problem of HIV – another complaint made at the time was that this ad was overdoing it, and would contribute to that general suspicion people have that government health messages are just intended to scare us. But take one look at the situation in Africa and it’s clear that Australia dodged a very, very scary epidemic, and with our large drug-using population it was possible that HIV could have crossed to the heterosexual population by the early 1990s. It didn’t, and we can thank Australia’s early and very impressive response for our very lucky escape. Part of that response was this cute guy with his scythe and his slightly tatty cape, and we Australians should all be thankful for whatever small part he played in keeping us safe. So, thanks and … happy birthday Grim Reaper! If you get laid at your party, remember that prevention is the only cure we’ve got!

In most social democratic countries (that is, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, troll-infested Scandinavia and much of Europe), the government provides some state support to the arts and sport, either directly through grants and training or indirectly through subsidies for community participation and activity. Let’s consider a few examples of these from around the world that I know.

The UK

Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics the UK invested heavily in amateur sports that would be represented in the Olympics, and in that year for the first time in a long time its sportspeople performed at a level that one would expect for a country of its size: this was preparation for the UK Olympics of 2012, where it’s expected they’ll do even better and, in a remarkable turnaround, will repeat the 2008 performance of beating Australia in sports we’re usually good at (I think they beat us at swimming in 2008). The UK also famously maintains free access to its public museums, which is a great thing (though my god they are crowded).

Australia

Australia has a long-standing practice of funding sports at many levels, including a cricket academy and soccer academy. State and local governments also maintain a very large number of public sports grounds that see heavy use: this community participation is the main reason Australia has four healthy football codes, one more than the UK and three more than the US. Women’s soccer in Australia is also booming and in fact the main break on its growth was the limited availability of grounds, which put women’s soccer into competition for resources with men’s soccer. Given the nature of a soccer ground, this kind of problem is often only resolved through public funding (to make more park space available). Australia also maintains a very well-organized system of political support for sport, which is manifested through e.g. the martial arts accreditation scheme and state-sponsored inquiries into the management of elite soccer. This sort of stuff is necessary to maintain momentum in the growth of new sports. Australia also maintains a system of grants for artists (the Australia Council) which fund any kind of new art through a supposedly competitive process. In addition to separate funding for the major elite arts (like opera and orchestras), Australia’s most famous landmark building, the Sydney Opera House, was built from public funds. So the arts at many levels are funded well by the state, through our taxes.

Japan

Japan maintains a network of public halls, kominkan, which are available for use for any cultural pursuit: flower-arranging, book groups, role-playing groups, you name it. The Japanese prefectures and city offices also maintain special martial arts buildings (budokan) for the practice of all forms of combat sport – you can book rooms in these halls to practice your own. Sumo is supported through public funding to some extent, I think (a source of much dissatisfaction to many Japanese when they see match-fixing and gambling scandals, and notice that the best-behaved sumo wrestlers are the foreigners!) Japan’s public schools and universities also maintain a heavy level of sports participation through clubs. I’m sure there’s other types of arts and cultural funding over here too, if I care to look.

Of course before the modern state this type of subsidy also existed, in the form of noble or religious patronage, but this subsidy came with the rather sad downside of requiring its recipients to either directly sing the praises of their patrons, or to at least look the other way from their worst flaws. So subsidy is not new, even if it is more systematized and conducted under more complex institutional arrangements in the modern world.

Since the mid-70s, however, the developed world has seen a flowering of cultural activities that were almost exclusively developed in the private sphere and/or through private sector initiative, without a skerrick of direct state subsidy. As a few examples: plane- and train-watching; martial arts; various forms of collecting; computer gaming[1]; lego and meccano; wargaming; and, of course, role-playing[2]. These cultural activities have developed over a long period of entirely private investment and support, in the sense that there was no government support for them as cultural activities either on the corporate side (in setting up companies to sell the activity); the individual side (in turns of subsidization or support for involvement); or the community side (in, e.g. special halls or facilities for them). Indeed, famously, after 9/11 the state intervened actively (though not deliberately) to make plane-spotting a good deal harder than it was.

Would the government have saved us from 4e?

One obvious question that this raises is whether these activities would have been more or less successful, or even different at all, if they had received state support as burgeoning cultural activities. Looking at the history of TSR, for example, it appears to have folded or near-folded several times, and gone through all sorts of weird product-redesign and marketing strategies to save itself (plus there was all that internal nastiness). Would the company’s history, and thus the game’s development trajectory, have been different if in the period from, say, 1972 to 1985 it had been able to receive some small quantity of government support as a cultural activity? One argument would be that with “handouts” supporting it the game would have disappeared up its own arsehole, becoming some post-modern weirdness disconnected from its market of gamers; the other is that with a bit of basic financial support the designers would have been freed up to focus on quality product rather than chasing the next bonanza, or at least able to spend a few years producing a coherent game system without worrying about matching their production activities to whatever marketing scheme they thought would save the company. I guess this argument comes down to one about industrial policy (should your government pick winners like Japan and the USA do, or should it foster competitiveness like Australia and New Zealand do). But I think we can boil this issue down to one simple question: would TSR have needed to make 4th Edition if they were receiving a government subsidy[3]?

What sort of subsidies would be appropriate?

Taking as read that social democratic societies will continue this practice of funding cultural and sporting activities, what sorts of things would be suited to RPGs if they were included under the rubric of “cultural activity”? Here are a few things I’ve thought of that I think actually would help to make gaming more widespread, more enjoyable, and perhaps more diverse:

  • Sponsorship of conventions: this would enable the conventions to be held in better locations, to have budgeted conference dinners, prizes, and possibly pay for attendance by renowned designers or GMs. It would also enable the game to spread outside of its heartland areas a little.
  • Recognition of some games as cultural icons, and their preservation either in print or digitally for common use: for example, the UK government might declare Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2 an iconic game and provide funds to maintain it in print or in an online archive, thus ensuring that it didn’t disappear. Some games that I think this would be a really good idea for include ICE’s Middle Earth Role-Playing, some form of OD&D, WFRP2, and the original Shadowrun. This wouldn’t preclude the companies from making new versions of these games, but it would mean that games of cultural significance were retained. Look at the effort the OSR puts into producing variants of OD&D as an example of the benefits of retaining these games in print or online.
  • Funding and research support for those elements of, eg, the OSR that are trying to piece together the history of the game, for example through funds to travel and do interviews, support in archiving and organization, and specialist research tasks (including translation)
  • Greater support for academic study of gaming, for example through research grants
  • Support for copyright issues: no gaming company can afford the rights to Harry Potter, I suspect, but a Harry Potter game would really help to spread RPGs around. If the government fronted up the money for the rights, then maybe this could happen – even a flawed Potter game would be a huge benefit to the gaming community, I think. More generally, access to the rights for game settings and art connected to them could help the industry a lot
  • Support for culture-specific games: e.g. the Australian government could hold a contest for development of a game setting that was uniquely Australian in feel, or the US govt could give out grants for the development of culturally-sensitive Native American game supplements
  • Technical support: development of online platforms, more research into the complex probability models used in some games, better editing and book-binding or just provision of support to overcome barriers to entry into new media would be really useful for diversifying the style and types of game and gaming methods
  • Establishment of an independent, high-quality magazine: most gaming magazines are owned by the publishing houses and have been for a long time. A genuinely independent magazine with high production values and an industry- and community-wide remit will never flourish in such a small culture industry, at least not in print, but I think with government subsidies it could and it would be interesting
  • Support for the online community: Prizes for bloggers, financial support for annual physical meet-ups, perhaps technical support in the form of grants to expand the use of the internet for gaming collaboration. Also, money for me.

None of these ideas seem to fundamentally change the basic modern business model of gaming, but I think many of them would help start-up gaming companies with both the cultural background of their activities, and access to some of the technical matters that can help a game work out. Other funding ideas here are largely about supporting the community that the gaming industry is built from, because as a cooperative activity role-playing needs more than just our private money. The RPG hobby only flourishes when individuals have the space, time, money and inclination to come together to make games happen, and it’s (rightly) difficult for private companies like TSR to build this by themselves. It’s easy for us as individuals to put in the basics – our money, our time and our living rooms – but when it comes to the deeper, more complex aspects of maintaining the hobby, perhaps we could do with the same support that recognized cultural activities obtain. Communities may not require support to maintain but it certainly helps, and governments are ideally placed to provide that support.

What do you think?

fn1: I include computer gaming in this list because although in some times and places the computer game companies have received state support as start-ups (e.g. in Australia), this state support is through industry development funds, as a pure business enterprise, not as a cultural activity per se. i.e. you can approach the government of a social democratic nation (in some times and places) and say “I want to start a business selling X” and they’ll fund it even though it’s a kooky hobby; but the same funds don’t seem to have been available for “X” as a cultural activity.

fn2: My reading of the early history of role-playing in the UK suggests a lot of the early games did actually happen in public facilities, like community halls. But a lot of these were church- or school-run, and when I was gaming in London these halls didn’t seem to exist, so I think this aspect of state subsidization of community art in the UK has died off in the past 20 years. I guess this is because public halls have been defunded, and since certain religious issues arose in connection with D&D it’s hard to ask to rent a church hall for an RPG convention.

fn3: And the related question: if you were a benevolent dictator subsidizing TSR, would you have let them?

Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

A Damsel, not in Distress

Today I visited the exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints by Kuniyoshi, at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills. Kuniyoshi is apparently one of the less famous of the Ukiyo-e artists, but his work has been coming back into vogue lately and the exhibition was staged to mark 150 years since his death. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Ukiyo-e, or “images from the floating world,” is a style of print-making and art work dating from pre-Meiji Japan, that focuses on “impermanent” themes detached from the everyday world. It has been credited with influencing the European impressionists, and also was probably the earliest example of mass-produced art. The Mori Art Museum introduced Kuniyoshi as “probably Japan’s greatest graphic designer,” which is an interesting way of thinking about ukiyo-e, and a sign that Japan was quite ahead of the west in this area: I don’t think anyone would really make claims to the existence of graphic design in the West before the 20th century. I think that the ukiyo-e artists were also influential in the development of manga (but don’t quote me on that). I think a lot of ukiyo-e in the later period also served an advertising role.

In Kuniyoshi’s case, images that are detached from everyday concerns seems to have meant that he produced fantastic stories, a smattering of horror, a range of prints on classical Chinese mythological themes, and lots of pictures of actors. The fantastic stories included 108 images of famous warriors, usually in battle or getting up to mischief. The print on this post is an example of his horror, and he also has fantastic themes: a classic adventuring scene of a warrior entering a dank cave on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (through a waterfall curtain – pictured below); Matsumoto Musashi slaying a whale on the open seas (in full battle gear); and various demons in combat with mighty champions. The fantasy and horror images were largely in the middle section of the exhibition, and there were quite a few.

Best not fail this stealth check

Some of Kuniyoshi’s later landscapes were apparently influenced by Dutch masters, and led him to break with some of the contemporary artistic traditions of the time to create a more naturalistic style, and these pictures gave a very nice combination of western aesthetic with classic ukiyo-e colours and imagery. But ukiyo-e is best on its own terms, and best when it is depicting the slightly fantastical. Its slightly strange perspectives and vibrant colours, combined with vaguely (or obviously) supernatural elements, give rise equally well to stunning scenes of battle or quirky re-imaginings of the ordinary lives of the Japanese of the era. I think Kuniyoshi was probably not a master of the style like some of his slightly later colleagues, but he had the ability like them to use patterns of the weather and the landscape, or slight changes to the ordinary perspective of the setting, to turn even something trivial like a couple of peasants walking through the rain into a magical, slightly surreal scene.

Much of Kuniyoshi’s artwork was driven to surrealism by another, more mundane element of life in pre-Meiji Japan: censorship. Banned from depicting the lives of courtesans, entertainers and rowdies directly, he began painting pictures of foxes, monsters, or even goldfish engaged in these activities. There are a whole series of images of cats doing slightly night-lifey things, and also of various supernatural creatures up to no good. The cats are very lifelike and entertaining, and he must have been inspired by this type of satire to simply experiment with the style: there is one picture of cats curled up and bundled together to look like blowfish that is extremely clever, and another idyllic country scene of two goldfish punting their way downriver on a raft, looking for all the world like fishermen returning home at dusk. These images are both surreal and beautiful, and I can’t imagine they have any satirical or political meaning – they’re just examples of the artist experimenting with a style he developed to escape the censor.

The pictures, then, are excellent, and there are a lot: I think there were over 400 on display, so you get to see a lot of work for your 1500 yen. The exhibition was very busy when I went, so you have to line up and move slowly along from picture to picture – the pictures aren’t big enough to take in from a distance, and the Japanese looking at the pictures obviously found a lot to take in that I didn’t – reading the text within the pictures, or picking out various iconography and classic symbolism that I would have missed. In combination these queues for this many pictures make the exhibition a slow and absorbing process, well worth taking your time on. It’s laid out well in sections, so you can understand what the theme of each section is and where it fits in Kuniyoshi’s career. There are also brief English explanations on each picture, which is good because the language of 150 years ago is well beyond my ken. Indeed, if I have any complaints about this exhibition it’s that there is just too much to take in, and you start getting the urge to skip bits (I skipped the “beautiful women” bit). Other than that, though, I would say that this exhibition is worth the money and well worth hiking to Roppongi Hills for. If you’re in Tokyo before February and looking for a decent retrospective of a single influential artist from the ukiyo-e period, I recommend visiting this exhibition.

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