SARAH BUITENDACH: A magazine and two songs represent the pulse of society
It’s in the entertainment, design and arts scene that you’ll get a real sense of what’s making blood pressure rocket, what’s utterly tepid and who is blazing trails, politically and socially
If you want to take the temperature of the globe, don’t bother with an infrared thermometer gun or hacking through the hard news — rather have a gander at what’s happening on the entertainment, design and arts scene.
It’s here that you’ll get a real sense of what’s making blood pressure rocket, what’s utterly tepid and who is blazing trails, politically and socially. This week’s cultural cacophony has been over two responses to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Hot off the press, Vanity Fair is the first example. The September issue of the iconic American magazine (which is over 100 years old) will shortly be on shelves and is guest-edited by acclaimed US author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This month, Vanity Fair features, almost exclusively, the work of a Black cast of top writers, photographers and creatives across genres. As this overview of the new issue by CBS puts it: “How does a publication that bills itself as capturing the cultural zeitgeist react to a time of Black Lives Matter?”
Let’s not forget, Vanity Fair made its name as a breathless chronicle of Hollywood starlets, amid the occasional whodunit involving the jet set. Though that sells it short: many top writers — such as Christopher Hitchens, Maureen Orth and Michael Lewis — have graced its pages. And its current editor, Radhika Jones, comes by way of Time and The New York Times Books section — so she’s not all poolside bubbly at the Chateau Marmont.
Off the bat, this month’s edition looks to tackle a lot of tough topics around race within the US context. It will, no doubt, attract critics, but there’s no disputing that in its conception and execution, it makes a statement.
Before the issue has even been read, Vanity Fair’s cover alone has elicited an avalanche of attention. It’s a painting specifically commissioned by artist Amy Sherald, who’s best known for her official portrait of Michelle Obama.
In a palette of ethereal green-blues, she painted Breonna Taylor — the young emergency medical technician from Kentucky who, in March, was killed by the police while she slept in her bed. To date, no arrests for her murder have been made.
Prexit for Rule Britannia?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there’s cultural brouhaha around a similar theme of race, history and power that is manifesting in a more, erm, orchestrated manner.
Last week the UK Sunday Times newspaper reported that the BBC was “discussing whether to drop Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the Last Night of the Proms in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement”.
As the newspaper explained: “The traditional anthems are hugely popular with the flag-waving prommers who ordinarily cram into the Royal Albert Hall, but organisers fear a backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery.”
The debate ignited over this hypothetical step was predictable. Some argue the move is an incendiary act of wokeness and cancel culture; those on the other side of the divide argue the songs are jingoistic hangovers of colonialism that have passed their sell-by dates.
Then on Tuesday, the BBC announced that the songs would still be performed — albeit because of Covid, instrumentally instead of by a choir. There’s no live audience so the whole thing is being filmed for TV. For the complete lowdown on the debacle, read the Beeb’s own update.
On Tuesday night, as I wrote this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in on the topic with this pithy analysis: “I just want to say … if it is correct, which I cannot believe that it really is, but if it is correct, that the BBC is saying that they will not sing the words of Land Of Hope And Glory or Rule Britannia as they traditionally do at the end of the Last Night of the Proms … I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.”
Ah, Boris. Here’s an idea: why don’t you call a referendum on it, and threaten to quit if it doesn’t go your way? It worked out so well for the last PM who did that …
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