Crevices of culture.

Review of Rod Stoneman’s Seeing is Believing: The Politics of the Visual. By Richard Callanan.

There is nothing to which Rod Stoneman is not willing to turn his attention so a broad canvas had to be created to encompass his writings on everyone from Andrea Mantegna to Banksy. The hoary old statistic about our being daily exposed to three thousand images is trotted out here and might have given Stoneman reasonable cause to consider limiting the five-hundred years covered here.

stoneman1But even having skipped the first thirty-thousand-odd years of human graphic depiction since the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave animal drawings it remains such a broad canvas that there are occasional grounds for suspecting that Stoneman is in danger of losing himself in his own thesis:
“Undermining any tendencies towards the univocal or unequivocal has led me to a degree of continuous uncertainty about the extent to which these analytical perspectives objectively correspond to external realities and the extent to which they are determined by the point and place of the subjectivity from which they are viewed”.

Fifty-four short essays and another slightly longer one are bound together with two-hundred photographs in this curious, intermittently engaging publication which melds memoir with philosophical, cultural and academic exploration of the history of the image. The entire production is immaculate and a veritable visual feast as the author might have reported with his unquenchable fondness for alliteration. But ‘virulent vestiges’ and ‘crevices of culture’ hardly prepare the reader for Stoneman’s musings on 9/11 when “3,000 civilians perished, pawns in the pitiless clash”.

Rod Stoneman is a political animal who has spent over thirty years operating in the middle and upper echelons of both film and television production on these islands. Yet the fleeting glimpses we get here of his first-hand experiences through these decades leave us feeling short-changed.

In 1988, as deputy commissioning editor for Channel 4, Stoneman commissioned Anne Crilly and the Derry Workshop to make a documentary called ‘Mother Ireland’ which included an interview with Sinn Féin activist, Máiread Farrell. The events surrounding the subsequent killing of Farrell by the SAS in Gibraltar and the consequent decision by Michael Grade and the Channel Four board not to broadcast the programme are related with sadly little new insight from Stoneman’s unique perspective on these events.

By contrast we are treated to accounts that are mostly second-hand of events extensively covered elsewhere such as those surrounding the deaths of Che Guevara and Captain – ‘I’m just going outside and may be some time’ – Oates. The investigation of an opportunity to make a documentary about Oates which initially provides the slim justification for his inclusion here soon gives way to some beyond bizarre – whoops – speculation as to whether Oates’ and Hitler’s motives for committing suicide were somehow analogous.

Stoneman is immensely well read and observant and meticulous in detailing with elaborate footnotes his every cultural reference and observation, when he might instead on occasion have credited his readers with – for instance – knowing, or at least knowing how to find out, what was meant by a Google Adword. It may be a legacy of the author’s many years of public service that every base must not only be touched but numbered, catalogued and cross-referenced.

So little faith has Stoneman in his readers that we cannot even be trusted to reach for ourselves the conclusion that the “moth drawn to a flame” in all likelihood “singes its wings”.

The number and length of the footnotes necessitated their promotion from the foot of the page to a sidebar where too often they compete for the reader’s attention with the photograph captions.

Yet when he writes of “the great castration” (his quotation marks) of 9/11 we are left completely in the dark as to the source of what is an extraordinary take on those events. Has Stoneman extrapolated this unattributed quote from the the financial industry’s own term for its biggest and brashest operators, the ‘big swinging dicks’ of Wall Street? Did the number of financial traders who died in the Twin Towers spark this notion and this phraseology which the author then could not bring himself to omit or – understandably – include as a coinage of his own.

Hints of celebrity anecdote pervade the book. It was in Stoneman’s company that Gabriel Byrne went on his last piss-up. Gretta Scacchi was once a fellow tenant in a damp basement flat. Brendan O’Carroll and the then head of the Film Board didn’t see eye to eye.

And so the banal litany of fleeting mentions goes on: Peter Greenaway, David Puttnam, Derek Jarman, Neil Jordan, Michael D Higgins. Over thirty years of meeting the great and the great-and-good, is that all there is? If not, is it the author’s recollection or his discretion which leaves us so under-nourished?

The individual essays are grouped under five general headings so it was with renewed enthusiasm that I turned over the page from the section on Art/Culture to that on Film/Television which opens with a treatise on the film ‘Born Free’ which came out in 1966, when the author was eleven years of age.

“She (Virginia McKenna playing the part of Joy Adamson) … jodhpurs … uprightness … khaki … buttocks … clench” and so it goes on until in a post-adolescent about-face the whole thing turns into an attack on the “pink-skinned English” perpetrating some sort of African cultural colonialism into which David Attenborough is eventually drawn.

And, lest any American readers get too comfortable, Stoneman hurries on to shockingly reveal that Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Casablanca’ was actually a backlot in Los Angeles where Hollywood frequently indulged its “Orientalist fantasies” – to bring us full circle, Master Stoneman.

Throughout the second half of the book we are battered with constant reminders of what’s amiss with the world. We have a “financial system based on greed and folly” and we inhabit a ‘”destructive reality”. But Stoneman’s greatest scorn is reserved for one of the main sources of his own bread and butter.

Television is the “moronic inferno” brought low by the “lapsed morality of television executives”. It is not made clear when this moral decline took place but we can probably assume it was some time after the author left Channel 4 in 1993.

Presumably it was also since that time that “the body politic of broadcasting” became “permeated with dissembling and deceit”, allowing us all to be ill-used with a diet of “Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey instead of Edward Said or Julia Kristeva”.

The director of the NUI Galway Huston School of Film and Digital Media accuses art schools of “disingenuously” producing thousands of students only 5% of whom continue to make art after graduation and only .05% of whom earn a living from the trade in their art.

The Slade School of Art is presumably no different in this regard but where Stoneman, Slade graduate and film-school director, stands amongst these statistics is an open question.

The design is sharp but reading the text initially gave this reader the impression that ‘The Politics of the Visual’ was having a deleterious effect on his eyesight. More likely it was the use of up to five different font sizes and styles on each page which proved so testing.

Indeed the last section ‘Verisimilitude and Delusion’ appears to reduce the general font size further so it becomes unclear who should be held to account; author, editor or designer when we read: “We are indeed conditioned and positioned, subjected in several senses, our self-image set up and held in place and internal conflicts subdued”.

The “blizzard of sexual imagery” to which we are daily exposed in my neighbourhood is considerably less explicit than the examples used by Stoneman to illustrate his thesis. One of those examples is inadvertently captured accurately in the text on the adjoining page – “aspects of sex and power literally come together in your face”. From there we move seamlessly on to coprophilia and the sphincter “where the sun never shines”. •