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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Bits and Pieces

I've got on to this fist concern very late in the day, so maybe you were there long before me, but it seems to me to be a matter of concern that the poet John Gallaher who, rightly, in my humble opinion, found himself with a page to himself on Wikipedia, signifying to all and sundry, that he is regarded as a "significant" poet. What was no doubt a very gratifying moment, was, alas, short-lived when he found himself to have been deleted. This, we know, is the downside of Wikipedia. Another contributor can decide that an entry is inaccurate or unworthy and alter it. In this case, though, it seems he was deleted because he didn't meet the Wikipedia criteria of significance. Except he was then reinstated, so perhaps he did meet it, after all! What it has thrown into relief, however, is the whole question of Wikipedia's criteria. Gallaher discovered that very few poets make it to the hallowed pages. (That has not been my experience, but I guess it all depends on how you interpret "many".) It seems that the criteria to be met include: the size of the poet's public following; how many articles have been devoted to him in what sort of publications; what awards he has one, and what sort of awards; the size of his publishers, etc, etc. My first reaction was to think: ah, well there has to be some sort of criteria. But does there? Why not allow bios of any bona fide poet initially and remove those that after a certain period of time are deemed to have aroused insufficient interest? The real questions raised by this issue are, I guess: how do we judge the "significance" of a poet? What is anyone's poetry worth to any other person? Is there a better way to give the public an opportunity to show its interest?

Two other news items caught my eye on the same day this week: first came the announcement that The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Time has come round again (it will open on June 9th), followed by a few column inches devoted to an opinion voiced by Professor David Crystal to the effect that texting, as in C U 2NITE, is actually improving the literacy skills of the younger generation.

I am something of a dinosaur in that any mention of The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition - or simply The Royal Academy, come to that - brings back memories of the days when Sir Alfred Munnings (whose painting, Setting Off, appears left) was president and that august body was the last and most formidable bastion against the encroaching hoards and the abandonment of technique and ll else that was holy to the true artist. Indeed, so fixed am I at that point in past time that I have to change gear mentally to recall that it is no longer like that. It couldn't be more different, in fact, as was shown by the announcement last year that Tracey Emin had been made a member of the academy, and the further announcement this year that for the 2008 Summer Exhibition she has been given one of the rooms to curate. Exactly at what point the hooligans managed to take over the running of the boot camp, I am not sure, I think I must have been on my gap year at the time, but take it over they did, and have been well in control for some time. They are very well dug in now. Strange, is it not, that the world does not seem to be any the worse for it? The academicians of yesteryear - if, indeed any remain - must be seething at the thought of the likes of Emin in such control.

It is no secret that The Summer Exhibition is intended as a democratic affair, though some democracies are more democratic than others. Anyone can take their masterpiece along, run it (no exaggeration, that) before the hanging committee (good name!) and hope to get the nod of acceptance. Academicians, of course, do not have to do anything so demeaning, but the result is that the exhibition is a hotch-potch of paintings crowded together, those by totally unknown artists rubbing frames with works by the great, the good and the famous.

Into this melee comes Emin, with her twenty-something exhibits by other artists of the moment, erotic works that make her "feverish". There is to be a video of a naked woman and a giraffe having sex. Another naked woman will be screened performing a hula hoop routine using barbed wire for the hoop. Emin, no doubt, finds herself becoming more and more feverish as the woman becomes more and more cut and bloodied. There will also be some stunning porcelain sculptures by Rachel Kneebone, but here I will detour for a moment to recall that fifty-something years ago my brother, who was attending a Methodist Church Youth club, persuaded me to accompany him to their Youth Week debate. The subject for debate was: That the artist is of more use to the world than the scientist. The young lady that I sat next to, my future wife, was passionately on the side of the scientist, I equally passionately for the artist. We both had good cause to be grateful to medical science for our health, even our existence. Naturally, I have often thought of that evening since, not least when I have read screeds detailing how bad science has screwed up the food chain or polluted the earth or whatever happens to be the latest disaster to hit the headlines. At such times it occurs to me that the doctors' Hippocratic oath contains the injunction that a doctor's first duty is to do no harm, and I wonder if all scientists should not have to take a similar oath. But what about the artist? The question has never been resolved: can the artist even do any hatrm? And the corollary: can the artist do good? Down they years there have been poets and artists in plenty denying that their art is capable of b ringing about any change in the world. I am sure some will think Emin's selection of works will do harm - if only to the Academy's reputation. But could it go further than that? And could it also do good?

There is no doubt at all that some will consider as harmful, David Crystal's opinion that txting benefits the literary development of those who engage in it. Txt messagers have been described by John Humphrys on the BBC as doing more harm to literacy and to our native language than ever Ghengis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago, and my instinct is that the vast majority who have even thought about the subject will agree with Humphrys. Yet to my mind David Crystal is one of the good guys, a talker of sound common (and uncommon)sense and a defender of whatever most profits the spirit of man. No matter what the subject for debate, I will always start with the assumption that I am on whichever side can count David Crystal among its supporters. It seems almost instinctual, now that someone has said it, that txting would improve literacy skills. Text messagers play with the language and if you can read btfl as beautiful you will certainly be able to scan a page of text more quickly than someone like myself who has to look at it twice before the penny drops. Written language contains a high proportion of redundant characters, the ability to screen them out is just one of the higher reading skills. That may not be the only benefit that txting brings, but it is a useful enough starter.


Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I have mixed feelings when it comes to Wikipedia. I use it constantly myself and most of my hyperlinks point to its entries. My reason for referencing it so much is that I know it will always be available and that's not always the case with other articles. Accuracy is another thing.

I know the articles I submitted were spot on because I researched everything and took my time over it. The Waiting for Godot entry alone took me six weeks working full-time to complete and I looked up every reference by hand; it took me six months in total to complete all the plays. That said, other people have come along since and chipped away at them. And I can't say it doesn't annoy me, because it does, but that's the nature of the beast. I know my Krapp's Last Tape is too long but it's also the most detailed entry you'll find because I took the time to extract information from so many different sources.

The plus side to Wikipedia is that a lot of the entries are overseen by fans who watch their sites like hawks. The guy who wrote the excellent entry on Beckett was a bit wary of me at first because I wasn't simply editing articles I was completely rewriting them but once he saw how much effort I was putting in he left me alone to get on with it and actually it was he who specifically asked me to have a look at the Godot entry because it was so bad. I've not looked at any of my entries for months. I think it would upset me too much.

To return to accuracy, I know it's not and I would never quote it – I would always go for a more reliable source – but for basic facts it's fine.

As for who is significant, that is a hard question. Obviously Wikipedia does not have unlimited resources. I think your system has some merit but, at the end of the day, someone will have to make a decision. I'm sure if we both made lists of Beckett's plays in order of importance most of the radio plays would come in at the end and they will be the ones that are looked up the least. Are they significant works? Yes, if you're a completist but if someone told you that they only had room for ten where would you draw the line? It's not a job I'd like to have let's put it that way.

Rachel Fox said...

I don't really have strong opinions on visual art (barbed wire hula hoops vs fine painting etc) but I do sometimes read Tracey Emin's column in 'the Independent'. Sometimes it is tiresome and self-obsessed to a ridiculous degree but then once in a while it is really, really good. The girl has something...whether you want it, of course, is another matter.

Dave King said...

I think you've echoed my thoughts almost exactly with regard to the accuracy issue with Wikipedia. The nature of the beast, as you put it, is both its weakness and its strength, but it must be very irksome to have put that much effort into a page and then to see someone chipping away at it who possibly is far less well informed. Shame the edits can't be edited. I find I am using Wikipedia more and more for my posts, and for the reason you state: that you know it will always be accessible. Also for the use of their images.
Incidentally, heartiest congrats on your novel - have you fin ished celebrating, yet?

Dave King said...

Yes, I too read Tracey Emin's column, and find, as you do, that it is sometimes self-obsessed and sometimes really good - but then I find exactly the same contrast when I look at her art. In actual fact, I am coming round to our Tracey. Mellowing a bit, is perhaps the way to put it.