About Tomatoes like Red-skinned Water Balls and Illegal Immigrants...

Yes, tomatoes that look marvellously red and sun-ripened in the middle of winter: those are the wonders of modern agriculture for you!

Last night, I watched a French TV newscast (France 2) reporting on the invasion of Spanish tomatoes in French supermarkets, all the way up to Paris - coming in by the million every month of the year. The TV crew had gone down to the South of Spain to investigate the production area around Almeria. A fantastic landscape of plastic greenhouses, bulging sheets of white plastic endlessly rolling over the hills. And under these sheets (that can be conveniently opened or shut according to temperature), there are rows upon rows of tall tomato plants. They grow on gravel and are fed water by the most sophisticated drip irrigation techniques. And a lot of water is used for each plant: there was mention of 3 liters per day. New tomatoes ripen every morning and are picked by crews of East European and African labourers. Then they are packed in nice looking plastic film boxes and trucked out across Europe.

I think Italy (where I live) must be the only place in Europe that's not getting Spanish tomatoes (and maybe Greece too). The Italians eat their own locally produced tomatoes, and they taste pretty good too - even in winter. They're not about to start eating Spanish tomatoes.

Yes, because the Spanish tomatoes taste like...water! I know because I've eaten them when I was in France. But it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, water is what they are, right? They grow on gravel and water, full stop. Under the circumstances, you can't expect them to taste like tomatoes. Lucky for you that they look nice and red!

The TV crew interviewed some French customers in the supermarkets who were buying those tomatoes and asked them how they liked them. They were met with embarrassed shrugs and one lady complained they tasted of nothing. When asked why they bought them, the answers ranged from "they're here, so why not?" to "they're cheap". And so they are. At €2.50 per kilo, it's barely above the summer price. Not bad.

But this TV crew was determined to scratch underneath the surface: how cheap really and why?

Well, it turned out the farm gate price was around 70 cents. So by the time it hits the supermarkets, the price is multiplied by 3 or 4. Don't be surprised. That's the kind of margins our dear marketing chains and distributors use and live on (and grow fat on). What else?

The next question is an obvious one. How come tomato producers can turn their products out at such low, low prices? Easy: they use cheap labour, people who come from outside the European Union. The TV crew interviewed a couple of them, illegal immigrants from Mali. Nice chaps, really, and obviously eager to work. They lived in a run-down house, clearly the cheapest lodgings they could find. And no wonder: they said they were paid €700 a month, and what with the rent, the cost of food and the electricity bills, that didn't leave much to send back home to their families in Mali. But better than nothing. These guys weren't about to give up their job...

All this makes me very sad. This is the exact reverse of a win-win situation. It's a dramatic lose-lose situation. Think of it:

a. the tomatoes are lousy, there's no gain for the European consumers who're actually paying for water packed in red tomato skins at 3 or 4 times the price of mineral water;

b. the jobs created by this tomato industry go to a kind of labour that is scandalously exploited. And as I write about this I have a hard time containing my indignation. A monthly salary of €700, paid directly to an illegal immigrant who is, by definition, beyond any health care benefits and cannot claim any social protection of any kind, well...it's more than unfair, it's pitiful, it's absurd, it's downright unethical. The situation cries out for revenge!

But it's not something confined to Spain. The same thing regularly happens in Italy. Most recently, it was early January 2010, we watched street fighting in the little town of Rosario in Calabria (reportedly some 15,000 Italians pitted against 3,000 immigrants). At the heart of the problem, there was this particular group of African workers living in an abandoned factory, with apparently the local mafia "protection", giving them a roof and work. The Italian army had to cart them off in buses for their own safety to protect them from the wrath of the local population. Meanwhile all agricultural production in the area came to a stop. There was no one left to pick off the fruits from the trees (the Italians certainly wouldn't) . Who knows where these immigrants are now and what they're doing...

I don't know whether the mafia is always behind every one of these gruesome episodes of Exploitation of Man by Man. Perhaps they are, especially in places where they control much of the economy. And that's not just in Southern Italy by the way - there are lots of places like that, just about everywhere in the developing world, including of course the famous BRIC countries.

Bottomline, one thing is certain: all these illegal immigrants are an easy prey to ruthless entrepreneurs. And these modern agricultural producers who exploit them have nothing to do with your vision of the good old peasants close to the earth, the righteous defenders of traditions and values.

No, these guys are out there to make money. And if there's a bunch of foreigners who have no friends locally, can't speak the language and in fact have no rights to be there but they are willing (nay, they need) to work, then why not let them? It's to everyone's advantage, right?

That's good old Adam Smith's Invisible Hand at work for you! And what damage it does, untold damage in terms of human suffering.

This is why I really get mad when I see piles of tasteless red tomatoes in supermarkets. It's not just a matter of taste...It's a matter of ethics!

And can't we do something more constructive with all these poor guys who flock to the coasts of Europe in the hope of finding work? There really are two kinds of illegal immigrants. I think those who want to work deserve our respect and support. Those who don't should be kicked out.

One should make the distinction. Don't you agree?

And if we are to show respect and support for those willing to work, then we have to be ready to do something constructive about it. In particular, European governments should put in place institutional arrangements whereby low-skilled jobs are systematically identified and put in a database made available to immigrant applicants with the appropriate profile. Actually there are lots of jobs like that, and not just housemaid jobs. I remember talking to a baker in Rome who was desperate - his bread was fabulous, mainly because he did it the old-fashioned way, getting up in the middle of the night to knead the dough. But he couldn't find anybody - I mean a strong young Italian - willing to come in the middle of the night and learn the tricks of bread-making. At the time, I investigated the question a little further and discovered there were some 4,000 jobs of the kind just in the Lazio region, that weren't covered. Nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night to bake bread...but if an immigrant is willing, why not give it to him?

Politically, it might be hard to swing, what with trade unions always preventing any changes to the labour market structures. But the unions should be told that they are defending jobs that no West European citizen wants. They've all attended school - many even the university - and low-skilled jobs are below their dignity, right?

So why stop the immigrants who are willing to take them? Granted, you need to have a system in place to separate the grain from the chaff - the immigrant willing to work from the one who isn't -. But once you do, it seems to me you shouldn't be so afraid of those hordes of foreigners knocking at the door. And the guy who works is a lot less likely to become a petty street criminal than the one who doesn't.

This would be a real win-win situation. Wouldn't it?


How about a nice ARTICHOKE RECIPE to comfort us a bit?

News are so bad and so sad these days, especially the ones coming out of Haiti...That's when I run to my kitchen for a little comfort. How about a nice "tortino" Florentine-style made with some tender spring artichokes?

There are lots of recipes for this on Internet but, as far as I can see, most of them are wrong. The objective of this recipe is to produce a fluffy omelette that rises in the oven like a soufflé and is filled with crisp, flavourful pieces of artichoke. I've had this only a couple of times in Florence, in one of those old-fashioned trattoria where you just know that you're eating traditional food of the best kind, and it's taken me several tries before I could perfect the recipe.

I could refer you of course to Artusi, the author of the definitive treatise on Tuscan cuisine, but I'll share with you the little secrets that I have discovered that ensure your tortino will come out just right. It's very easy to do but it requires some care. AND good ingredients. Of course, that's a general rule: if you want to prepare good food you just can't skimp on the quality of the ingredients. For example, for frying, I ALWAYS use olive oil. Not necessarily the best most expensive quality, but it's got to be real olive oil: it has a great advantage over all other types of oil on the market. Because of the way it withstands heat, it fries a lot better. AND it's the least bad for your health. AND the best tasting.

Now, back to the artichoke tortino. Turn your oven on (especially if it takes time to heat up like mine does): set it at 180° or mark 6 or whatever heat you normally use to roast a chicken. In other words, hot but not too hot.

Then start with the artichokes. You need 2 small ones per person (or a big one/person - but better small). I use the small variety you find in Italy, the ones with leaves tinged with a lovely violet colour. Actually you can use any type of artichoke, provided you prepare them correctly: you have to peel the stem (to get rid of the thick, string-like fibers) and take out all the external leaves that are tough. Then cut off the artichoke tips, leaving only about half the leaves on, or even less. Be vicious about it! Once you overcome the impression that you're throwing everything away, it is in fact very satisfying to get rid of all those dark green leaves! What you should have left in your hand is just a tiny, tender, yellow-leaf artichoke, maybe half or less of what it looked like before you started hacking at it.

Then cut it in 4 or even 6 pieces lengthwise. And scrape the inside to get rid of that hair which is in the centre and is obviously inedible. At that point, quickly throw the pieces in cold water to which you've added the juice of 1/2 lemon: the purpose of this is to prevent the artichokes of turning black on you.

Next, lay all the pieces on kitchen paper and pat them dry. Then throw them in a bowl and flour them.

Heat olive oil in a deep pan (at least a couple of inches) and when it's close to smoking (but NOT smoking!) throw your floured artichoke pieces in. You should shake off the extra flour and throw them in ONE by ONE. Let them fry until they're a nice golden colour and crisp. Take them out with a perforated spoon and set them to dry on paper.

Now prepare the omelette in the usual way, beating together one or two eggs per person (but never make a tortino with less than 3 eggs: it won't work!). Salt and pepper to taste, a little grated parmigiano (optional) and throw in the fried artichokes.

Oil (or butter) a pyrex dish, pour the egg-artichoke mixture in it, sprinkle with a little grated Parmigiano cheese and put the whole thing in your (now hot) oven.

It takes about 20 minutes to bake (or more depending on the size of your tortino). Watch it rise and turn golden. Check for doneness with a toothpick, but then it's a matter of taste: some people like it real done, others prefer it moist. In any case, don't be disappointed when it starts to come down after you've taken it out of the oven. That's normal: after all, it isn't a French soufflé! It's just an oven-baked omelette...

Ma che buono!

Have a nice glass of red wine ready and warm crusty bread and let me know how you like it!

It's a guaranteed comfort food...


The Haiti Tragedy: another Ghastly Tale of Missed Opportunities ?

Last night, TVs around the world showed a huge American military helicopter land on the vast grounds of the collapsed presidential palace in Haiti, bringing in the first soldiers to re-establish order after the situation had (as expected) degenerated into uncontrollable looting and violence.

Then a terrible thought hit me.

Yes, a terrible thought: why haven't these nice empty lawns been used BEFORE as a HELIPORT to bring in the needed aid? And when I say before, I mean immediately following the earthquake when all other entry routes were blocked or clogged up with traffic? Why not create a heliport to fly in water, medecines, doctors, nurses, tents, electric generators etc and set up a field hospital right there on the presidential grounds? Why not a heliport to bring in additional support and fly out the worst cases of wounded victims to other hospitals in the region (Santo Domingo is near, but so is Cuba)?


Yes, WHY NOT A HELIPORT FIVE OR SIX DAYS AGO? When we were perhaps in time to prevent the situation from sliding into the chaos we are now witnessing?

Ok, I can hear you grumbling in the background. A heliport might not have made that much difference. Perhaps not, but it was better than nothing.

Still grumbling? Are you saying that it is easy to criticize with hindsight and that I should desist?

Well, I won't. I admit it is easy to criticize with hindsight, and ok, I'm not there in Haiti, but here in my studio in Rome, in front of my computer. Yes, I hear you: you're going to tell me that is precisely the point. You're going to say I know nothing of the ins and outs of the situation, that it is a uniquely complex disaster, that all the structures of the State have collapsed (the police, justice, army etc). In short, it is a humongous challenge, and who am I to pass judgment?

Sure it is humongous and I'm not saying it ain't. And who am I? Well, I think I've earned the right after working 25 years in development and humanitarian assistance to sit back, watch the world and say what I think. And I think that what we have here, amidst all the horror and tragedy, is probably one more ghastly tale of missed opportunities.

I admit it's not easy to think outside the box, to ask yourself: ok, the harbour is blocked, the airport is insufficient and overloaded with traffic, all incoming roads are jammed. Yet the solution is not something way-out. It is a military classic: the helicopter. Why wasn't it used? Why didn't the UN ask for it? Why has the solution finally come up only to bring in soldiers?

Why, why, WHY?

There may be political reasons. Perhaps the Americans didn't dare land in on the presidential grounds without the official OK from the Haitian President, or, for that matter, from the French. Or perhaps there was no request coming from the UN because of the Big Boys that won't allow the UN to bring its act together (assuming it ever thought of a heliport). Who knows...

And let me tell you, the American soldiers now coming in aren't going to have an easy task of it. No sirree, they won't.

How hard it's going to be, you can easily guess from the extraordinarily frank reaction of a Haitian policeman I also saw on TV last night, on the same news which showed the helicopter (it was on TV 5 Monde). This policeman was standing guard in front of a collapsed store on one of Port-au-Prince's biggest commercial streets. The store owner was in there trying to salvage his belongings and had asked the policeman for protection, as he explained to the TV cameraman. Presumably he was paid extra to do so - but of course, he didn't say that, nor did the cameraman ask him. Instead, he asked him why he didn't go and help to control the looting that was on-going in the supermarket next door.

I shall never forget his reply.

He said, and I repeat textually because his words are very important - they go right to the heart of the matter - , he said in his wonderful Haitian accent in French:
"Je n'ai pas le courage de leur tirer dessus!" I haven't the courage to shoot them down.

Yes, that's right: he hasn't the courage to shoot. COURAGE is the word he used. And you can understand him. These are his conationals - perhaps even cousins or brothers. People like him - only a little less lucky than he is. He's got a gun and a policeman's status, it's always something when everybody else has nothing. So he can't shoot them down, can he? Not his own blood and flesh, can he?

And how else are you going to establish order?

There are no prisons to lock the looters up, no judges to take them to be judged. I tell you it won't be an easy task for the Americans. It will take courage, that's the point, the COURAGE of professional soldiers. At least the Americans won't be dealing with their conationals as was the case for the haitian policeman. That's the only difference. But I'm not sure it will be an advantage. It won't make their task any easier. Nobody likes foreigners, especially not the threatening kind. They're bound to hit into walls of diffidence, anger and distrust.

Yet there is NO alternative. Order must be re-established to allow humanitarian aid to continue.

And that is yet another tragedy of a different order, when the HELPING HAND is turned into a FIST...


Is Haiti going to be the next humanitarian circus?

I am scared.

And horrified.

When I see the images on TV, I am horrified. Human tragedy is unbearable. I have never liked the way journalists dramatize a situation, yet this is a truly dramatic situation and we can only let them get on with it and try to ignore their banal comments and cheap attempts at dramatizing. Like everybody else who is watching TV these days, I wish I could be there to help. Don't we all?

But most of all, I am scared. Yes, I am afraid that much of the help that is going out to Haiti is arriving either too late or is doing little good as aid convoys clog up the few incoming routes. It's like having a lot of people rushing together to get through a narrow door with the result that they all jam up and no one gets through, or few do, and those who do get there late, when most of the tragedy has been consumed...

The images speak for themselves.

What on earth is going to happen next in Haiti? This is a fundamental question and it was drawn to my attention by a follower of this blog. He evoked Haiti as a new Alcatraz - a striking image if there ever was one, of a whole island emprisoned in its own tragedy. And he mentioned some of the calamities that has befallen Haiti in the past two hundred years since it became independant, from Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Cedras, Aristide, Voodoo to floods and now this earthquake.

Yes, it is the first country in Latin America to have proudly achieved independance from its colonial masters, but at what price! And unfortunately what has shaped its past is bound to determine its future. Of all the calamities that have befallen Haiti, surely one of the worst is the phenomenon known as the "Tonton Macoutes" - the local mafia -. And the Tonton Macoutes are bound to influence what is going to happen next. Over the medium-long run, i.e. one or two years from now, we may very well find Haiti has turned into another Somalia, a "non-state" lost in a turmoil of violence with no end in sight - instead of an integralist islamic nightmare like in Somalia, we will have a Voodoo hypnotized population in the hands of the Tonton Macoutes .

But in the immediate, there is something else that worries me. I'm convinced we are going to be treated to an absolute circus of human error as every humanitarian agency runs to the spot, in a perverse race to outdo the others in trying to be the first and best in offering aid.

And human error can be tragic.

We had an inkling of what's coming on CNN a couple of days ago. Something astonishing happened to one of their journalists, the famous field doctor Gupta. Remember him? He was offered the job of "Surgeon General" in the Obama government and turned it down, preferring no doubt his life as a reporter. He suddenly found himself in an impossible situation, alone with his crew in a field hospital in Port au Prince as the UN withdrew its doctor and nurses for "security reasons". Yet ambulances kept coming in, bringing the wounded to the deserted hospital! Gupta asked CNN for permission to stop transmitting and to be allowed to help as best he could with rapidly dwindling supplies of medecine left behind. I don't know what happened next to Gupta and I shall try to follow up on him today. But it does show the incredible stupidity of a bureaucratic set-up such as that of the UN.

So is the UN to blame? Unfortunately, Non-Governmental Organizations are hardly any better: they always try to attract media attention (a must for them if they are to survive because that is the only way they can obtain funding) - and attracting media attention is not really the objective of humanitarian aid, is it?

Some UN high official on TV (I don't remember who)ponderously announced that this would be the hardest humanitarian emergency to deal with - the hardest ever in UN history because all government structures had collapsed and entry routes were either blocked or hopelessly inadequate. That is surely a correct description of the situation but just about EVERY humanitarian emergency is like that! Local government structures collapse and help corridors are notoriously fragile and narrow...So why should Haiti be any different or harder to help than, say, the island of Aceh after the Tsunami? Was Aceh helped by the fact that it belonged to Indonesia? Hardly. It was politically a rebel, runaway area...Yet help did come, thanks in large part to international efforts, and today things in Aceh are looking up.

Why can't the same thing happen in Haiti?

There are basically two rather unrelated reasons why I fear things may turn out very different in Haiti and much more tragic.

First, the issue of AID COORDINATION. The image that comes to mind is the one I mentioned above: a narrow door jammed with people of good will, with the result that few get through. We all know Hell is paved with good intentions... Everyone is running to Haiti, Official Agencies and Non Governmentals of all sorts, and from all countries, primarily America and France, presumably for geo-political and historical reasons (Haiti was a French colony two hundred years ago).

WHY? WHY WASN'T THERE ANY INTERNATIONAL EFFORT AT COODINATING AID? Ok, the UN can lament the fact that this is a particularly difficult, confused situation but instead of lamentations, we would prefer to hear from the UN that it is ready to coordinate aid. What is needed desperately now is leadership to coordinate aid and avoid delays, overlaps and inefficient delivery of aid - not to mention the risk of running into ethical problems of giving too much to some while ignoring others.

I recall all the recent hype within the international community about "ONE United Nations", a series of ambitious overarching programmes and protocols to deliver support as one agency, in coordination with all UN agencies and their partners in civil society etc etc Fine, rousing words but where is the reality?

The reality is that when big countries like the USA or France loudly proclaim they are running to provide aid, the UN suddenly becomes MUTE!


When are we ever going to work together?

And now I'm coming to the second reason. In this mess, it is clear that Haiti has nowhere to go but collapse into violence. The Tonton Macoutes that had been (maybe) slowly coming under government control in recent years, are now ready to act again. The political void created by the earthquake is a golden opportunity for them.

So, as I said in opening this post, what we are going to witness next in Haiti is bound to be a most painful humanitarian circus...unless...

Unless the international community can PULL ITS ACT TOGETHER and provide well-coordinated aid in a stabilized environment. That ought to be the UN's job, but will America and France let it?


Guess what: the contemporary art market is...a market!

I didn't say it, Don Thompson said it... (I mentioned him in an earlier post. Just to remind you: the title of his book is THE $12 MILLION STUFFED SHARK, published by Aurum Press, 2008). Of course, he's an economist and not an art critic: he's bound to see the art market in purely economic terms. But he took a couple of years to research it, he spoke to everybody that counts and he makes a pretty convincing case.

If you're interested in contemporary art, this is a read you shouldn't miss!

What I found most surprising is how exiguous this market really is: in the sense that, according to Don Thompson, major players are really FEW. There are, he says, about two dozen superstar "branded dealers", about as many "branded collectors", including Charles Saatchi who's a little bit of both. Then there are two major auction houses (Christie's and Sotheby's) plus a couple of minor ones (Philips de Pury and Bonhams international). What else? There are three or four major art fairs that are mostly a recent phenomenon like Art Basel, Miami Basel, London's Frieze and now Maastricht. Art fairs are largely the preserve of dealers. And, of course, there's a handful of major Museums like the Modern Tate in London, the Guggenhein and MOMA in New York, and I would add Beaubourg in Paris. These are the preserve of art curators. Big cultural events like the Venice Biennale that have been around for a long time are probably better classified as belonging to the world of art curators than that of art fairs.

So you really have just three categories of "branded players" whose decisions are watched by the world press and would-be collectors/new art buyers: (i) superstar dealers,(ii) major auction houses and (iii) "branded" collectors - those in the public eye. These are the people who make and break artists.

What about art critics?

It seems that art critics loudly complain that they're not heard, and as Thompson put it: "dealers, auction house specialists and collectors insist that critics have little influence on the contemporary art world - not on artists'success and certainly not on prices" (p.227).And apparently this is so in every art capital around the world with one exception: in New York, "it is gospel in the art community that a highly favourable review in the New York Times will sell out a show" (p.229).

Some of Thomson's comments are really damning: on p.229, he tells us that critics "compete to be hired full time by editors, to have their free-lance writing published, or to win approval from university tenure committees"; on p.230, he tells us that critics are paid in whole or in part by the artist's dealers and that "the dealer in effect commissions the review, and chooses a critic who is likely to offer favourable comments".

What, are we to believe that contemporary art critics are not independant?? Afraid so. Yeah, welcome to the real world, baby!

Auction houses of course do the same in their glossy sales catalogues. Indeed, in Thompson's opinion, auction houses (the two big ones especially) are the REAL players in the contemporary art game. He doesn't exactly say that but he sure implies it when he writes: "the market is a much better predictor than the critic" (p.231), In short, prices are a much better guide to an artist's value than art critics. And prices are largely set by how auctions go. That's only logical: their sales are public while dealers's sales tend to be naturally opaque. By definition. True, a lot of collectors prefer it that way. And the auction houses know this too: when they engage in "private sales", which they do increasingly often, they compete directly with dealers. But all this doesn't change the name of the game: all prices that become reference prices in private deals have been set at public auctions.

Where does that leave Art with a capital A?
How can an "emerging artist" emerge?

This is where Thompson's book is not very useful.

He argues that to count as a major contemporary artist you have to be a "branded artist". Fair enough. So how do you become "branded"? He comes up with a short list of 25 branded artists that he has culled from different sources (of course not everyone he met could agree on the list). These are mainly the Young British Artists promoted by Saatchi in sensational shows (aptly called "Sensation"), the likes of Damien Hirst and Emin Tracey. Plus blue chip names like Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Takashi Murakami, Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud etc

So what did they do to emerge and become "branded"? Hey, they must have done something real special that others haven't been able to come up with! It's always a challenge to stand out in any crowd, and particularly in a huge crowd like this one. Thompson estimates that in London alone there are some 80,000 artists walking around with only 75 that are "superstar artists with a seven-figure income" (p.64)

75 out of 80,000? Less than one tenth of one percent: that's pretty depressing...

So how can you make it to the top of the pyramid? Hard, hard. You need to KICK people in the eyes - or ears (yes, I literally mean "ears": there are collectors who buy works from their trusted dealers sight unseen). And those who know how best to "kick" come from the advertising world: Mr. Saatchi is an emblematic example of what I am talking about. He has brilliantly applied to the art market the talents he had previously displayed in creating the biggest, most successful advertising agency in the world. It is no coincidence that the most famous contemporary art collector is also an advertising tycoon.

In fact, reading Thompson's book, you get the distinct impression that SHOCK VALUE is what "brands" an artist. Damien Hirst, the creator of the shark in formaldehyde whose decaying, stuffed carcass sold for $12 million, is an obvious case in point. And Thompson goes through many more examples that all come down to one concept: shock value. When it's high, you've made it. And shock value has strictly nothing to do with either Beauty or Pleasure, the traditional features of Art. Shock value is all about publicity...

Now is an art market based on "shock value" a market destined to fail over the long run? If you think so because it has nothing to do with Art, well, you're wrong! There is no reason at all why such a market should fail. It is held up by other things, mainly a commercial mentality - it's a market, remember! - and new collectors keep coming to it, for the usual reasons: investment AND status. There are new billionaires every year, and the current figure is 817 with only 360 Americans: the rest are Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern...

And of course, right below the one billion cut-off point, there are thousands of new millionaires as well - the co-called "rich". According to Wikipedia, there are currently over 10 million people around the globe classified as U.S. dollar millionaires. Doing a quick back of the envelope calculation, one may assume that about 20 percent of these have enough financial muscle to compete with billionaires at any auction of contemporary art (that's 200,000). Of these, some 20 percent might be actively interested in art. That works out to about 40,000 people around the world that may be into the contemporary art market. That makes it a surprisingly SMALL market... Not so surprising perhaps if you think of it as a market for the "really rich" and the "super rich", in short a market for the new global ELITE.

Art for the elite? Now there's nothing shocking about that: it's just like in the past when Art was for the Prince. And it's not about to collapse or blow away even if some people who are sourly conservative and tradition-minded believe art is not just for investment or shock value...

What really surprises me the most is that there isn't ANOTHER art market around that caters to the tastes of the cultivated middle classes. These are people who share with the afore-mentioned elite a similar level of education, but of course not the same income. Since the 1960s, a huge number of people have gone to college - more than ever before. You could speak of the "cultivated middles classes" as being really a new, gigantic class: the MASS ELITE. The total number of college graduates in the United States rose to over 40 million in 2003, an increase of 40 percent in the decade between 1993 and 2003. Over forty million ! And there are just as many university graduates outside America and their numbers are growing. These are people with at least a smattering of art knowledge; indeed, these are the people you see queuing up in front of the Louvre and all the big museums around the world.

Thanks to them, art - especially museum art, I mean the ancient variety - has never been such Big Business. Never have so many people flocked to museums. And among them, there are a lot of people who do not like the excesses of contemporary art, particularly those of conceptual artists that use animal carcasses, elephant dung and unmade beds to make their artistic points. And they do have money to spend on things they like.

So why isn't there an art market for the cultivated middle classes? I guess photographers have taken up the slack, and there's a lot of beautiful "art photography" around that one would like to have in one's home. But then wanting to have Art for one's home is...SOoo petit-bourgeois, isn't it?

Tell me what you think...Who is going to be the next Saatchi, the one to open up the art market to the mass elite?


The Biggest Event in 2009? A Non-event...

Yes, I believe that the most important event in 2009, and even for the whole decade, is what has been universally viewed as a resounding failure:the Copenhagen climate conference held in December.

A non-event.

The classic case of a mountain (the meeting of nearly 200 countries to discuss climate change and what to do about it) that has given birth to a mouse (an agreement with no deadlines, no strings attached - simply to continue to discuss the matter in Mexico this year and South Africa next year). Neither developed nor developing countries were happy with the result. The only country that walked out of Copenhagen feeling it had been a victory was China.

Surely other events in the decade have a better Claim at Shaping History: 11/09, the War on Terror, the Big Recession, Obama's election, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Gaza, Darfur etc etc. So why should a fiasco like the Copenhagen Conference be viewed as a milestone event?

For a very simple reason: it signals the return of the world's biggest polluters to the UN negotiation process. Remember what happened to the Kyoto Protocol? Nothing, precisely because America would have nothing to do with it.

And this time, is it going to be any better? You bet! First, nations have agreed to keep talking AND they're putting money behind all this talk: a long-term fund –$100 billion by 2020– has been set up to help developing nations transition to cleaner energy.

I can just hear you mumble that's all the United Nations is good for: talk, talk, talk and who knows when or how much money will ever come to help Bangladesh and all the others who need help when climate change hits them.

That's true, of course. Funds pledged in these international conferences don't always materialize. But a pledge is better than nothing, especially when the United Nations Secretariat is there to keep reminding member governments that they're supposed to cough up the money or else...

Or else, what?

Nothing, of course, except public shame. And for politicians, that's embarrassing. So, in addition to the UN Secretariat, the world press also needs to do its part and stay vigilent. Environmental NGOs, starting with Greenpeace, also must do their part. And you can bet they will. So there is actually a BIG momentum emanating from the Copenhagen Conference.

Might a bunch of prominent environmental NGOs banding together have achieved the same result as the United Nations? It's a thought, but the answer is no. Sure, they could have made a big splash in the press but - that's the point - they couldn't have involved governments. Not directly. Only the United Nations can effectively do that and that's why it's an important organization. That's why even a failed UN Conference remains important.

It all has to do with how the system works.

Actually very few people understand how the UN system works. I know because I've worked in it for 25 years, I've participated in several world conferences and organized a couple of regional ones (in Portugal and in Cyprus - more about that another time). When a journalist writes "the UN badly organized this Conference...", it shows he doesn't really understand the system. You may remember that accusation was repeatedly levelled at the UN in Copenhagen. Perhaps the UN Secretariat did not organize this particular Conference very well, I don't know, I wasn't there. But from my experience, I can tell you that the organization of a world conference is as much the responsibility of the host country as it is of the UN staff involved...

Because, come to think of it, the United Nations doesn't even EXIST!

To begin with, they're NOT united at all. The United Nations is NOT, repeat NOT remotely a world government, not even the beginnings of one. It is not a separate entity from its member nations.

What is it then? It's essentially a (glorified) MEETING place, or to use a UN term: a "forum" serviced by the UN Secretariat. And the secretariat is, as indicated by the name, a bunch of...secretaries, well no, more than that: they're people who know how to organize international conferences and provide the needed technical information to ensure that talks are not merely hot air.

OK, you'll tell me you know all this. Member nations meet at a UN Conference, sure, but what's the use? All they do is fight: developing countries vs. developed and now there's this new, highly vocal group in the melée, the famous BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). In terms of climate change, these guys want to maintain their chance to develop the way Europe and America did, i.e. at the expense of the environment, and they can't understand why they should restrain themselves when developed countries never did and simply blew up the climate with their heavy footprints over the last two hundred years (what delicate metaphors!).

Result of all this? Predictably no agreement in Copenhagen.

But wait a minute.

Since this whole thing about climate started back in Sweden in 1972 (The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment), we've come a long way, baby.

Sure, it has taken time - over 30 years - partly because so many people were convinced the climate wasn't changing. That's where the United Nations made a smart move: in 1992, they put together a bunch of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, and slowly, report after report, public opinion started to change and eventually everyone became convinced that there was a problem, that the planet as a whole was threatened.

This idea of putting together high level experts is very effective, and it is something the United Nations regularly does in all the areas where it functions: food and agriculture, industry, culture and education, health, science etc And every time there's a technical input into the UN talk process, it slowly but inexorably leads to the adoption of a set of rules to govern international relations. For example, countries can no longer dump poisonous pesticides on other countries, major cultural heritage sites are defended etc etc

But I can hear you: nobody agreed to anything in Copenhagen, no rules about emissions were adopted, it was a huge letdown! That's true but something did happen. A UN Conference can be deemed a real disaster only when government representatives don't listen to each other at all. And it happens more often than you think. A Head of State or Prime MInister flies in to deliver his/her speech which is strictly for home consumption and not for the people sitting in the Conference hall... and they fly off the next minute without engaging into the slightest dialogue. Now, there was much of that going on in Copenhagen, plus a lot of confusion and protest, but there was also some dialogue. Obama did talk to the Europeans, the Indians and the Chinese. And that's very, very important.

The ball has started rolling.

And you can count on the UN Secretariat to keep it rolling till the next meeting in Mexico, and the next after that. The UN process, even when it falters, keeps going, like that water dripping on a stalagmite in a grotto: drip, drip, drip and the stalgmite keeps growing, up, up, up.

That's what the UN Secretariat is paid for...

So, the UN is not a world government, but it's an irreplaceable place to talk about what really matters: human life on this earth - the only one we've got!


How about an exquisite DIET desert to go with your Festivities Champagne?

I had a dietary problem on New Year's Eve: I needed to come up with a sophisticated desert to finish dinner off with a flourish - something special to go with Champagne - and yet be low-calorie and light, and easy-to-digest, and with NO egg yolks, all of this to stay in keeping with the unbelievably strict dietary requirements of my 96 year-old mother!

The desert had to be based on...cooked fruit, bah! Well, I did devise something rather special that I want to share with you and that I'm consigning to my blog so I won't forget it the next time a need something super duper AND light!

Let me know how you like it.

I did it with pears and apples and a few big, juicy California prunes thrown in for good measure, but I guess you could use any other fruit you like: apricots and, why not, strawberries, blueberries, any berries you happen to have handy. And in one respect I broke down: I used cane sugar (I love its nutty flavour) and a little wine, but I suppose that if you wanted to be really strict about it you could use an artificial sweetener and skip the wine (and use water instead - shudder!).

So here's the recipe:

1. Peel and cut in half (taking out the hard core) a mix of APPLES and PEARS (at least one fruit per person, plus one or two, as desired, to make a nice batch); use also some DRIED FRUIT that you've allowed to soak in hot water with a little sugar added in to plump them up.

2. Put all the fruit in a teflon pan and add the water in which you've soaked the dried fruit, a cup of WHITE WINE or, better still, half-a-cup of PORTO or SHERRY wine, the juice of 1/2 LEMON and 2 spoonfuls of CANE SUGAR, and CINNAMON to taste. And yes, do taste it: it should be sweet but not overwhelming.

3. Place the pan on low heat and COVER it; use a transparent lid to keep an eye on what's happening so that you don't let your fruit mixture dry out. It doesn't take long to cook this way: maybe 15 minutes or less. Check the fruit with a toothpick: when it sinks in real easy, it's done.

4. Take the fruit out (delicately! It breaks easily) and set it out in a nice looking baking dish, something you can take out to the table. Return the pan with its juices to the fire, add some more sugar and wine and boil it down until it starts to thicken then pour it over the fruit.

5. Now, this is really good as is but if you want to serve the fruit for a special occasion, this is how you dress it up:
  • Beat up 3 EGG WHITES real hard with a spoonful of floury sugar, as you would do to prepare a meringue
  • Spread over the fruit mixture
  • Top it off with crumbled up CORNFLAKES or any flakes you like
  • Put in a slow oven (set the temperature as low as your oven can go: the idea is to dry up the egg whites)
6. Before serving, put your fruit under a hot grill so that it will turn a nice amber colour and the flakes will be crunchy.

Success is guaranteed! And if you have any suggestions to improve it, please send your comments...