Culture column

Wagner: ring of change

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The musical dramas of Richard Wagner, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year, are among the most popular works of classical music today. They are regularly staged at all the major opera houses, and tickets sell out fast.

Yet he remains a deeply problematic artist. For a great many people he and his music have become indelibly associated with anti-Semitism and Nazism. His works remain largely banned in Israel. Almost any documentary about Hitler and Nazi Germany will at some point mention Wagner as a cultural inspiration, and Hitler's devotion to the composer in particular.

Duchamp, Lichtenstein and pop art

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Two galleries in central London are currently hosting exhibitions devoted to major 20th century artists. The Barbican's show, entitled The Bride and the Bachelors, focuses on the work of pioneering French artist Marcel Duchamp. Meanwhile the Tate Modern has unveiled its latest blockbuster, a retrospective devoted to the Pop Art paintings of Roy Lichtenstein.

Yet the two shows take quite different approaches to their subjects, suggesting two different underlying attitudes towards popular culture. The Barbican exhibition is steeped in history, tracing the connections between Duchamp and a generation of younger US-based artists directly influenced by him. The Tate's show is much more straightforward, and ends up as flat and featureless as Lichtenstein's canvases.

Harold Pinter: the personal and political

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The recently renamed Harold Pinter Theatre opened its doors last month with a production of Old Times. Jack Farmer looks at the way political themes are revealed in the most personal of situations in Harold Pinter's plays

Fade up. A man and woman sit in a living room, smoking. Evening. The woman turns her head. "Dark", she says. "Fat or thin?" he asks. Who are they talking about? A second woman with dark hair stands half in shadow by a large window. Is she really in the room with them, or is she just a figment of memory?

Django Unchained vs Lincoln

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Two of Hollywood's heavyweight directors are slugging it out for the prestigious best film award at the annual Academy Awards ceremony. The favourite is Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Also in contention is Django Unchained, the latest offering from Quentin Tarantino.

Both films tackle the sensitive subject of slavery and have attracted considerable critical attention.

Tarantino has divided opinion ever since he exploded onto our screens with films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the 1990s. But recently he has been attacked for his approach to race, notably by black director Spike Lee. Having previously criticised Tarantino's repeated use of the "n" word in various films, Lee denounced Django Unchained for trivialising the experience of black people. He described it as "an insult to my ancestors" and urged people to boycott it.

Flog it

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Looting, robbery and pillage are the norm not just in the sea off Somalia, but in the refined world of art, and this has always been the case. The great museums of the world are largely deposits of loot.

Lord Elgin - infamous for stealing sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens - was neither the first, last nor greatest of the looters. Page two of this month's issue shows one of the crudest recent examples of art looting, the taking of some Banksy's pictures from Palestine to be sold to wealthy collectors. But the current crisis in public finance has led to a new wave of transfers of public art into private hands and a reversal of New Labour's attempts to limit the privatisation of the art scene.

William Morris's socialism

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For many, William Morris is best known as a designer and artist - his patterns turned into wallpapers, his drawings into beautiful yet functional furniture.

But Morris was much more than just a craftsman: he was a poet, storyteller and socialist. For Morris, art was essential to a fulfilling life and he was angered by the poverty, environmental pollution and terrible working conditions of Victorian life.

Blake's Jerusalem

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Jerusalem, the song based on a poem by William Blake, is now the unofficial national anthem.

For Danny Boyle, on the left, Jerusalem created the opportunity to include industrial workers in the Olympic opening ceremony. For David Cameron, on the right, Jerusalem is an expression of distinctively English nationhood. For many ordinary people Jerusalem offers a welcome alternative to the depressing, jingoist dirge of God Save the Queen.

Jerusalem is open to many interpretations. William Blake was a complex character and his works can be difficult to read - but one thing Blake was not was a nationalist of any kind. He was a revolutionary.

Ten years of Loving Music and Hating Racism

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In preparation for the tenth anniversary celebrations of Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR), I looked through my old folder of political memorabilia. There I discovered a copy of the first ever Temporary Hoarding magazine produced in 1977.

Adorning the front cover was a simple but powerful message: "We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Music that knows who the real enemy is."

I believe that spirit is kept alive today through the work of LMHR.

Bring back the bawdy Bard

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Recently Shakespeare has been popping up everywhere, even more so than normal. Alongside the usual productions there is an exhibition coming to the British Museum and lots more smaller performances, many happening under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad.

Should we care? Isn't Shakespeare just the preserve of the pretentious literati who get a kick out of saying they like stuff that most people struggle to understand?

That's certainly what I used to think. I used to agree with Blackadder, who, in a great scene in Blackadder: Back & Forth, castigates Shakespeare (played by the pointless Colin Firth, in his perfect role sitting quietly on the ground getting kicked) for inflicting boredom on generations of schoolchildren. Blackadder sums up a typical Shakespearean scene: "Oh look here comes Othello, talking total crap as usual."

Horrors of capitalism

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Is it just hype or is the new horror film Cabin in the Woods a gore fest, a butt clenching, genre defining classic as some claim?

It was a dark rainy night when I along with four friends - Fred, Velma, Daphne and Shaggy - ventured from our home town of Hackneyville to the Ritzy cinema, Brixton, in the deep south (of London) to investigate.

We laughed and screamed as we drove off. All was well as we crossed the piranha infested river Thames, but as soon as we reached the alligator infested swamp of Southwark we were soon lost.

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