Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Punching Pictures

A close-up view of the puncture in the canvas.

A child has fallen against a picture on exhibition in Taiwan, but there's something fishy about the whole incident. Bendor Grosvenor raises a number of concerns in an excellent post (if any lawyers are reading, I disagree utterly...). Even the footage of the fall itself doesn't look quite right to me; it smells like a publicity stunt. But it prompted a number of thoughts.
  • Why is this such a huge news story? I think partly because we're conscious of the vulnerability of heritage, and how easily the irreplaceable can be destroyed. But there's also been an outpouring of sympathy for the child; people are scared they too might accidentally damage something, like the irrational fear of falling from a tall building. A weird article by Jonathan Jones seems to say, "ho-hum, accidents happen". 
  • In reality people don't just fall against pictures. But they are fragile, and the constant packing, moving and unpacking is taking its toll on the world's best pictures, which seem always to be ferried between exhibitions.
  • AHN rightly notes that the picture's owner and exhibition organiser ought to have every interest in preventing publicity. I wonder how many incidents get covered up, especially of damage in transit. Everyone concerned has an interest in hushing up incidents. I suspect that more pictures are damaged than we realise.
  • The insurance valuation is crazy. This is nowhere near a $1.5m picture. But insurance valuations are often puffed up for exhibition shows, as a sop to lenders. In the UK insurance costs are absorbed by a government indemnity scheme, so museums have no incentive to ensure a fair valuation. The indemnity scheme is a daft subsidy that should be removed; there are better things to spend scarce government funds on.
  • The security was absurd. The child was allowed to wander around holding a drink, the rope barrier was redundant and the platform in front just acted as trip hazard. None of this is unusual, even in major museums. Guards are so scared of causing offence that they rarely speak out. Sometimes museums themselves seem the people least concerned about preservation.
  • I have a problem with the idea of museum exhibitions being run for profit - hiring out pictures instead of judging loan requests on their merits. But some are at least serious and well organised. Others are utterly trash, and they seem to be proliferating. I went to a Goya exhibition at the Pinacoteque de Paris where almost none of the pictures labeled Goya was actually by him. But the Bowes Museum lent them an absolute masterpiece unquestionably by Goya, without even charging a fee. Museums need to smarten up; the Bowes were taken for chumps, and seemed to have no idea what they were lending to. Museums need to smarten up about loan requests, and the Bowes curators and trustees were grossly negligent in lending such a masterpiece.
  • The same show at the Pinacoteque had just two guards in a whole parade of little galleries. One was on duty in the gift shop. It's revealing of priorities, and shows what happens when profit maximisation drives everything. 
  • The incident coincided with the utterly tragic destruction of Palmyra. You can't equate an accident with wanton wholesale destruction. But for all the rightful outrage at ISIS, we seem blind to the incremental damage and dreadful risks incurred in the global merry-go-round of exhibitions. We should take more responsibility for the protection of our own cultural heritage, which we actually have control over, as we weep impotently for destruction in Palmyra. 


  1. Michael, I wonder if I could send you an image of one of my recent paintings. My email is stuartmorle@gmail.com Thank you, Stuart.