Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Nostalgia creates an impossible goal

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 Grand Budapest Hotel , starring Ralph Fiennes, yearns for the aristocracy.
Grand Budapest Hotel , starring Ralph Fiennes, yearns for the aristocracy.

Wes Anderson makes politically conservative films that liberals (like me) love to watch. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, set in the 1930s, yearns nostalgically for aristocracy; they are, after all, utterly marvellous compared to the fascists who replaced them.

Attempts to escape modern evils by reviving the past were also a minor theme of last weekend's excellent Auckland Writers Festival.

A panel on the West's view of the Arab world was asked why the glittering past of Arabic science was largely forgotten, even in Arab-speaking regions. Religion scholar Reza Aslan's reply: 90 per cent of the world's Muslims lived under Europe's rule not so long ago. Once the colonials abandoned their disastrous "civilising" project, all that was tainted with Europe - including modern science - was rejected as oppressive. Islam, as something both ancient and symbolically non-Western, became very important to cultural identity.

In this story, first there was Islam and science, then colonisation, then Islam alone. In analogy, first there was aristocracy, then fascism, then Wes Anderson egging on Ralph Fiennes to chew up the pink confectionary scenery. In other words: nostalgia creates a false past, an impossible goal.

Aslan sees the Arab Spring as a continuing attempt by the Middle East's overwhelmingly young populations to define the future for themselves rather than in reactionary opposition to an oppressive Other. He sees them developing new Arab modernities and identities, perhaps by synthesising influences rather than suppressing the new, or local, or imported. (Many New Zealanders could perhaps identify with this version of the Arab Spring; issues of cultural identity are a huge part of colonisation's legacy.)

The story becomes: Islam and science, then colonisation, then whatever people create for themselves - from aspects of both Islam and science again if they want. This is why Aslan is "more optimistic about the future of the region than the average news watcher".

The bugbear of another festival guest, architectural critic Jonathan Glancey, is not colonisation or fascism but their unattractive heir: globalisation. He railed against the dreary shopping-mall architectural sameness that this "monstrosity" spreads across the world. But instead of offering workable responses to this creeping grey goo, he finds solace imagining a past religious golden age: not Islam, but a time when church spires were the unrivalled high points in Europe's towns, and nobody used Twitter.

I was annoyed by Glancey's glib dismissal of Auckland as a cowboy town due to its "shocking" sprawl. Our overall density is reasonably high; we just don't have the intensely packed inner core of older cities. As Glancey put it: Auckland "doesn't have that classic sense of city-ness".

But he also said that local, regional and national identities are increasingly important. So Auckland gives Glancey buildings of non-globalised local vernacular - and instead of being pleased, he's traumatised? Repeatable classic vs banal cookie-cutter: who gets to say which is which?

The Arab Spring answers that one way; nostalgic Grand European Hoteliers another.

- NZ Herald

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