March 17th, 2008


Apologetically intellectual, unapologetically anti-intellectual

"Do not admit cleverness in any form into your life," says a spoof Press Release in British artist Stuart Bailey's ongoing text performance at the Whitney Biennial. It's a very British theme, that "do not admit cleverness". We saw it raise its head in the Click Opera comments yesterday when someone mentioned John Carey's books attempting to topple the reputations of some of Modernism's greatest writers. It may also have lurked behind Noel Coward's sketch about the Swiss Family Whittlebot. It's certainly the theme of Frank Furedi's book Where have all the intellectuals gone?.

Clever people in Britain are vociferous in their anti-cleverness. When a camera crew came to Britain from Finland in 1993 to make a Momus documentary called Man of Letters, I took them to meet interesting people I thought would have intelligent things to say. One of these was children's authoress (she'd just published "King Kid") Rozelle Bentheim. I'd met Rozelle -- Scottish and Jewish, like my hero Ivor Cutler -- at my friend Tamar Yoseloff's poetry club at the Earl's Court Troubadour. I didn't know her very well, but she seemed like an interesting and intelligent person. She'd spent time in New York in the 80s, befriending Klaus Nomi.

So, with director Hannu Puttonen and the film crew, we arrived at Rozelle's basement duplex on the New King's Road. On camera, as you can see in this clip, Rozelle warmed to "Platinum", the first track on my Timelord album, but took me to task for the way I was framing it in words:

"I haven't heard anything you've ever done before in my life. I didn't listen to the words, but this is very playful and this is very intuitive and it's very playful in a good childlike not childish way. So why are you substantiating it with all these kinds of words with edges on them?"

"Because that's one side... that's my playfulness too," I countered, "I love playing with ideas and whenever I hit you with a theory it's always --"

Rozelle interrupted me with a scream: "A theory? ARGGHHHH!"

I wondered what had become of Rozelle Bentheim, fifteen years after that conversation. A quick google turned up an article in the Media Guardian. Headed "Bright Prospect goes on lookout for big ideas", the article described how British magazine Prospect had commissioned Rozelle to make them over in order to attract new, younger readers. Seeking to reflect the magazine's authority and eccentricity (if not its intelligence), Rozelle "has used warm colours, introduced a slightly larger typeface and commissioned typographers and illustrators to create some unique 'furniture' for the title. It feels less cluttered, fresher and easier to read as a result."

The Guardian continues: "While it remains an unapologetically intellectual title - publishing 'big opinions about big ideas' - now it has a big redesign to boot". The syntax and the implications there are oddly British -- do you need to apologize for being intellectual? Why that "while"? Why does a big redesign contradict an interest in big ideas? Are the implications of a redesign using warm colours, large type and simplicity that an ideas magazine is otherwise cold, dense and complex?

What I found interesting, though, was the way this article about a redesign of Prospect magazine followed the same basic contours as my conversation with Rozelle fifteen years ago. "Do not admit cleverness" seemed to be the not-so-secret theme of both.

"Your little songs are all like these little chairs of mine, which I think are rather adorable, and they're very -- actually they're quite unselfconscious," Rozelle told me back in 1993. "But I'm not going to talk about them in an intellectual way."

I countered with: "There is a lot of media attention around pop music and you have to fill columns and columns... you have to talk about it." (You couldn't really make the same defense today: intellectualisation of pop music has fled what's left of the music press.)

"Why do you have to be seduced just because you're supposed to do it, why are you doing it?" demanded Rozelle, making thinking look like abject conformism.

"I love talking about art, I love it, it's so unnecessary. Nobody has to talk about art, nobody has to make art." Going through my mind as I said this was probably some picture of Rozelle sitting in New York with Klaus Nomi. Surely he talked about art? Why was she suddenly so much against it?

Telescoped history of Britain over the next ten years: rave culture, lad culture, Spice Girls, Oasis, reality TV, New Labour. I leave for Paris, New York, Tokyo, Berlin. Zoom up, here we are, fifteen years later.

I look at the Prospect site. Rozelle's redesign is indeed elegant, with a nice curlicue joining the C to the T in the title. The front page headline is unapologetically intellectual: "HOW CHINA THINKS: the brains behind a superpower". Below it there's a profile of a Chinese man with a big domed shaved head, stroking his chin, thinking in the most conspicuous, calligraphic way imagery has yet found to depict the process -- the pose, in fact, of Rodin's "Thinker". The lead article is called "China's New Intelligentsia".

Rozelle's disgusted scream when I uttered the word "theory" rings in my ears. This new job must be a sort of torture for her. Unless -- like all clever British people -- she only affects, cleverly, to hate cleverness. Now there's a prospect to get you scratching your chin!