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Newsletter 350

Published August 13, 2020
Not exactly Nixon & Frost...

Watching Jonathan Swan’s interview with Donald Trump this week made me feel that perhaps there is a future for common sense in this world. Each time Trump tried to spin off into one of his alternative realities, Swan brought him back to earth. If one disregards the President’s casual attitude to an ongoing coronavirus death toll of 1,000 Americans per day – “It is what it is” – perhaps the most telling exchange came when Swan queried the sheets of coloured bar charts Trump was waving around, and put forward a more realistic index for judging the success or failure of the fight against the virus.

“You can’t do that,” said Trump.

“Why can’t I do that?” said Swan.

No answer. The reason why Trump thought the reporter “couldn’t do that” was because it had never occurred to him that his sheets of paper might be questioned. He apparently hadn’t even bothered to try and understand the props he was flourishing, and had no plan B if this tactic was shot down. I remember an overly self-confident Malcolm Turnbull once being woefully ill-prepared for a Kerry O’Brien interview, but that was a passing embarrassment compared with the full-on catastrophe of the Trump-Swan exchange.

Can Joe Biden bungle the debates with Trump so badly that he looks less competent than this hulking blob of ignorance? Surely all he has to do is manage to stay standing and not dribble too much. That’d be more reassuring than the performance Trump put on with Swan. Biden’s best strategy would be to stand quietly while Trump bellows and rages. By now it’s a stale act that needs to be treated with the contempt it deserves.

I know I shouldn’t rave about world politics, but as I tend to treat this newsletter as a cross between a diary and a soapbox, my sense of existential astonishment is always rising to the surface.

This week’s art column looks at Sullivan + Strumpf’s survey of works by Syd Ball from 1963-73. It shows how those abstract paintings of the late 60s-early 70s are roaring back into the spotlight after once being denounced as empty formalism. The secret, perhaps, is that everything that followed proved just as empty and opportunistic, even if the most strident political messages were being waved about like flags.

There is, perhaps, a greater integrity in a work that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a large, coloured object with a striking visual impact. That’s pretty much what Syd Ball was making. Although there were plenty of surreptitious sources of inspiration none of them changes the way we view these pieces. At present they are the perfect antidote for the growing obsession with works that proclaim various injustices in regard to ethnic and sexual identity. Alas, a successful work of art must always be more than a simple image, but it’s rarely a treatise on social injustice.

Speaking of nostalgia for the 60s, the film being reviewed is Echo in the Canyon, a documentary fronted by Jakob (son-of-Bob) Dylan, who leads us on an idolatrous exploration of the music that came out of Laurel Canyon at the end of that momentous decade. The 60s has been eulogised and debunked on endless occasions but this film makes no attempt to show the entire picture. It’s vivid and entertaining enough that one never frets over all the bad stuff that has been left out. I only wish I could say the same about Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus.