This week we talk to Claire Fox, founder and director of the Institute of Ideas, and convenor of the annual Battle of Ideas conference, which took place last month. Claire is one of the regular team members on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, and has appeared on BBC 1’s Question Time.
What’s the latest download on your Ipod?
Ipod? – you’re kidding me? But CDs I have bought recently are Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand which I love and rather belatedly I have bought Joan Wasser’s Joan as Police Woman which I play and replay. Also, I have been bought Thomas Zehetmair and his Quartet’s Bartok: String Quartet No.5 Bela & Paul Hindemith Quartet No. 4. – On a couple of listens – and I will need more – this might prove to be a favourite.
What was the last thing you saw at the theatre?
The fantastic David Edgar adaptation of Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Parts I and II at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. Ensemble acting at its best: 23 actors, 100 roles, and perfect pace and attention to detail ensured the six and a half hours at the theatre passes without you once thinking time is dragging. Teenagers in attendance, usually written off by those in the arts’ elite as having the attention fly of a gnat, were rapt throughout.
Tate Britain or Tate Modern?
Tate Britain every time. I feel art is at the heart of Tate Britain; too often Tate Modern indulges in ‘art for headlines’. Too many treat it as a glorified coffee shop, a pretentious meeting place with art at its periphery. If you want to be seen, go to Tate Modern; if you want to see some art, go to Tate Britain.
What are you reading at the moment?
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which the Institute of Ideas book group is discussing this month. It recently won the Orange prize for fiction. Winning literary prizes is not necessarily a guide to great novels, but in this instance the judges are to be congratulated for finding us a novel well worth reading, with not only literary merit but insight into the recent history of Africa. The vivid set of complex characters act as a counter to caricatured depictions of Africans as hapless victims of either famine or corrupt dictators, in need of saving by Western celebrities such as Bono and Bob Geldof. What is more, once you start it, you can’t put it down
Which cultural figure from the past or present would you most like to meet or have met?
I would like to spend time with FR Leavis and argue with him about The Great Tradition. I have met and interviewed Harold Bloom, but it was too brief an encounter. His rejection of feminist and post-structuralist criticism may sometimes seem too much like a grumpy old man, out of time, but this should not put people off. His writings about literature are fresh, accessible passionate and erudite without being pompous or over-populist. I love his The Western Canon and Shakepeare: The Invention of the Human. Meanwhile, I have heard George Steiner give three long lectures, and even spoken to him on several occasions. I stuttered through each encounter. He may be an old man, but he makes me go weak at the knees. Oh to have been taught by any of these great teachers and critics.
Which cultural figure from the past or present do you think is the most over-rated?
Young British Artists (YBA) collectively. Despite some talented artists amongst them, such as the Chapman brothers, the YBA phenomena is over-rated and over flattered by a fawning art establishment, who seem over-awed by youth and so called ‘cutting edge’ per se.
And the most under-rated?
Leon Trotsky’s writings on culture collected in On Literature and Art, are endlessly perceptive and challenging, and significantly stand the test of time. Trotsky eschews today’s fad for reducing art to its instrumental value, writing "A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art". He’s a useful reminder that the tendency to hi-jack the arts for political ends is not confined to Stalinist philistinism, but is still thriving at the DCMS.
On novelists, Edith Wharton is often under-rated. Worse, film adaptations of her novels do her no justice, and lose her wit and savage social critique. Hopefully Hermione Lee's fabulous new biography of the American writer will inspire more people to read her.
The X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing?
Both – I flick between the two. Trash TV on a Saturday night is my perfect way of unwinding. Neither actually pretends to be ‘cultural’ as such. However, the classical music world’s aping of reality TV, from BBC2’s Classical Star to the forthcoming BBC1 prime time Choir Wars, are more problematic. We shouldn’t let the BBC get away with telling us this shows a commitment to bringing high art to the masses. It’s a betrayal of such a mission, by suggesting the only way ordinary people might ‘get’ classical music if it is wrapped up as a game show.
You’re asked by a paper to review either The Magic Flute or We Will Rock You. Which do you choose?
The Magic Flute. Sub-Queen c/o Ben Elton I can live without. However, although I am a Mozart fan, I am not an expert and hence any review might lack insight. I prefer to read reviews by experts rather than enthusiastic amateurs. However, this is not to be snobbish about West End musicals; many are entertaining, even exhilarating. I thoroughly enjoyed Billy Elliot (ballet and the miners’ strike – tow of my favourite subjects) and even Wicked, my last encounter with the genre.
Have you ever walked out of a play, film, concert or other production?
Never; there is always a hope things will get better, especially in live performances, and sometimes I have hated the first half of a play and then become hooked as the actors / performers have relaxed. I have given up on novels after a few chapters; life’s too short to waste on self-indulgent, poor writing, however much the reviewers tell you this is the ‘next big thing’.