Tuesday, 22 September 2015

On Art Galleries and Swimming Pools

Image result for marshall street swimming pool
This summer I learned to swim, and it prompted reflection on the similarities between swimming pools and art galleries. No, really ... bear with me. In both spheres, officials fret about declining public interest and propose more and more official interventions to curb decline. Swimming participation has fallen sharply, and officialdom thinks it's because we can't use our smartphones in the pool (I'm not making this up). Museums are in a constant panic about becoming 'irrelevant', so they enthuse about technology. Government cuts mean both swimming pools and museums are being outsourced and privatised. And a fetish for 'engaging new audiences' is offputting to serious swimmers and serious art enthusiasts alike. 

Drastic cuts to local government funding mean that councils can't afford to maintain opening hours or facilities at either swimming pools or museums. In museums we're just starting to see the effect, with outsourcing of security and reduced hours to facilitate private hire. Swimming pool operations have been outsourced for some time, with bad results. Private operators demand a monopoly on learning to swim sessions, which are pricey and profitable. That means not only that swimming clubs and other operators can't provide lessons, but also that fewer lanes are available for actual swimming. As a learner myself, I can say that it did me no favours. I only had a couple of unofficial lessons. Learning to swim is about practice, and that is curtailed when lanes are closed (especially when the slow lane at the end is closed - I needed the security of the edge when I started). At one swimming pool I use, there is sometimes just one lane of eight available for lane swimming. 

The contractual relationship between councils and outsourced operators means there's no one to hold accountable or to complain to. The operator says they're following the contract, and the council is unable to change agreed terms. We will see more of this in museums; some already close early for private events. Don't be surprised when you find your local museum closed for the day because they've got a wedding on. But it's not just a lack of money that's at fault; it's also how the money is spent.

The London Aquatic Centre is the pool used for the 2012 Olympics. It's one of only two 50m indoor pools in London, and it is brilliant. But the main competition pool is given over to something called 'extreme aqua splash' every Sunday afternoon. There is actually a separate training pool that could be used. But instead the main pool is turned into a play area for half the weekend. In the brief window before aqua splash the pool is chronically crowded with lane swimmers who are squeezed out for most of the day. Fun for kids has been prioritised at museums and swimming pools, partly because 'kids are the future', so we must 'engage' them. Trouble is, it doesn't work.

When I was a child our local swimming pool had a water slide and a wave machine, and it was fun to splash about. But there was no pressure actually to learn to swim. So I didn't, and it was a quarter of a century before I got back in a swimming pool. As with swimming pools, so with museums. Engaging kids has become a messianic project, to the exclusion of adult enjoyment. And when they grow up, they will look at museums as places only for kids. Why would they think museums are places for grown ups, when they know them only as places where they went to play? 

The ideology of inclusion means that neophytes are led to expect facilities to be organised around them. This blog post expresses frustration at the demand that faster swimmers give way to slower people. And here is another swimmer frustrated with the prejudice against supposedly-elitist competitive swimmers. As a new and slow swimmer, I agree with them both. The reluctance to enforce rules in case it puts anyone off is actually offputting. You have to have an induction session before you can use the gym, but you can just turn up at the pool. It's hard for pools to work effectively without shared norms, and it's hard for new swimmers to know how to behave when the rules aren't explained. I found this indispensable guide online; I wish I'd known sooner.

We've seen this before. Librarians were among the first to fret about their coming irrelevance. Local authorities turned libraries into 'ideas centres', and ditched the books for computers and community centres. It just accelerated the decline. When they became places to hang out rather than, um, libraries, the case for maintaining them became weaker. Local authorities are slashing hours and closing branches. Swimming pools and museums seem set on the same trajectory. I suspect the answer is really simple. Do less. Less extreme aqua splash, fewer lane closures. Keep the doors open, the pool clean and prices low. But what group of interested professionals will conclude that they need to step back? Instead they think it's about innovation, technology and consumer expectations.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Brian Sewell

Image result for brian sewell
I'm truly saddened by the death of Brian Sewell, saddened to a degree I've never before felt for some one I never met. He was a giant among critics. Brian—for he will always be Brian to me—was a really great writer with a unique prose style, and his acerbic criticism stood out from the consumer reports written by some of his peers. But the strength of his criticism came from his extraordinary knowledge of art. Sewell was famous for his put-downs, but his brilliance really came through in his enthusiasms. He had both a good eye and a deep knowledge of art history that he shared generously. 

I'm saddened a second time by the obituaries, because they emphasise too much his barbs and too little his enthusiasms. I'm struck by how everyone notes that Brian was often wrong. Of course he was sometimes wrong. But the judgment of 'wrong-ness' is sometimes made with a finality that implies that he was objectively WRONG. That contrasts with Brian's own criticism. For all its vitriol, his controversial judgments were thoughtfully presented. He was consciously goading the panjandrums of officialdom, which is quite different from demanding obeisance to conventional wisdom. Strong words are fitting when trying to overturn consensus; they are unnecessary and even censorious when demanding deference to convention. 

The goading worked, and the panjandrums hated him. It is simply astounding that people felt moved to sign letters in protest at an art critic, and that high officials sought to get him sacked because they disliked his criticism. It underlines the need to challenge the sensitive bullies with identikit taste.

Brian' rich vocabulary and sophisticated writing made demands of his readers, but rewarded us amply. He believed in his audience. His Christmas 'books of the year' showed the breadth of his reading, recommending recondite and expensive academic texts to the readers of what became a free local paper. And he even taught art history in prisons, which I think tells you more about the man than any number of encomia. Brian's autobiography will, I think, stand the test of time. It's not only a window on a fascinating life. It's also one of the best autobiographies I've ever read. I was put off by reports of its salaciousness, but when I finally summoned the will to read it I found the discussion of sex to be frank, yes, but also authentically integrated into the life. He is a rarity among writers for his ability to write about sex without awkwardness. 

I desperately hope that his criticism will last too, although it's not a model that can be followed. You see some people who try, but you can't emulate Brian's style or form without first mastering the content - having a solid grounding in art history and a great eye. 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Something is missing from a great show of ancient bronzes...

Picture: Amazon
Jens M. Daenher & Kenneth Lapatin (eds) Power and Pathos: Bronze sculpture of the Hellenistic World J. Paul Getty Museum 2015 £42.91

I'm sorry I won't be able to see this show, currently at the Getty, but the wonderful catalogue is some consolation. This is what an exhibition catalogue should be: erudite essays, comprehensive entries for all exhibits, proper detail on condition and provenance, and great illustrations. I find these sculptures thrilling. Even if you know nothing of their context, they are immensely powerful works of art. But there is an extra frisson from sensing a connection with an ancient civilization far removed from ours, but feels so accessible through these universal masterpieces. If I have one criticism of the catalogue it's that this sense of wonder is dulled by a sometimes ponderous writing style. Oh, to see the exhibition in the flesh!

Most ancient bronzes have been melted down for scrap, but the precious survivals reveal them as a pinnacle of art history. Power and Pathos brings together some of the greatest. Some were discovered in the renaissance, and some may even have been handed down the generations from antiquity. A surprising number have been found quite recently, and the exhibition is an opportunity to assess them in the context of more familiar sculptures. But one of the greatest recent discoveries is missing. 
Picture: Cleveland Museum of Art 
The Apollo Sauroktonos only emerged in 2004 when it was bought by Cleveland Museum of Art. They say it may be a sole surviving bronze by Praxiteles, one of the greatest ancient sculptors. The catalogue gives short shrift to the idea it's by Praxiteles himself; there's just not enough evidence for that claim. But it's not actually in the exhibition, so we lose the chance to compare it with the canon of ancient bronzes. Sculptures have been brought from all over Europe for this show, but the Apollo Sauroktonos hasn't made it from Cleveland to Los Angeles. 
It's a controversial sculpture. It was bought from a dealer that has broken the law in the US and Egypt, and its provenance is vague. Most suspicious of all is Cleveland's own secrecy; it refused to allow an academic access to its files on the sculpture. But technical evidence indicates that it was excavated a long time ago, and no specific claims have been made for restitution. That didn't stop the Greek government leaning on the Louvre and demanding its exclusion from an exhibition on Praxiteles. I don't know if specific threats were made over the Power and Pathos exhibition, but the chilling effect of Greece's threat to the Louvre may have been sufficient. 
Looting of antiquities is an especially pernicious crime. It is so much more than property theft; it permanently deprives humanity of irrecoverable evidence of our history. Context is vitally important. But our rightful outrage at looting shouldn't stop us asking: does stigmatisation of antiquities without provenance stop looting? And what should we do with all the antiquities that lack provenance? Should they be hidden from view, never sold or loaned?
The debate has been distorted by moral and political grandstanding. Countries demanding restitution are not innocent victims heroically seeking to protect art and history. Italy wants to hoard everything found on its territory, but fails to protect and display what it has. Greece has made no claim for the Cleveland sculpture, yet it uses its power to stop its exhibition. Antiquities without provenance are being treated as 'dirty', as if the objects themselves have bad juju. Superstitious thinking doesn't stop looting. It stops scholarship.

That said, the Cleveland Museum of Art has behaved despicably. If the sculpture is clean, why are they so secretive? My request for information was simply ignored, and scholarly requests for access have been denied. That's not the behaviour of a serious scholarly institution with nothing to hide. Maybe they deserve to be called out and ostracised, their requests for loans boycotted. That seems like cutting off our nose to spite our face, but if peer institutions think the acquisition was unethical they should come out and say so. Instead everything is done in secret. Greece acts behind the scenes, threatening to deny loans if anyone borrows the Apollo. Other museums are too timid to criticise either the Greek government or the Cleveland curators. And the Cleveland Museum of Art keeps its lips sealed. Whatever your views on the antiquities trade, secrecy won't do anything to advance the debate.

Ivan Fallon on the Lloyds/HBoS merger: bad deal, worse book

Picture: Spencer House
Ivan Fallon Black Horse Ride: The inside story of Lloyds and the banking crisis The Robson Press 2015 £25

In the great room of Spencer House, pictured above, Gordon Brown is said to have persuaded Lloyds TSB's unwilling chairman to buy their ailing rival HBoS. Black Horse Ride shows that Lloyds was already keen on the takeover; the idea was theirs, and Brown merely promised to remove obstacles to a deal that proved disastrous, and ended with Lloyds being bailed out by the government. I worked for Lloyds at the time, albeit in a lowly role far removed from the board's strategising. The idea that they were the unwilling stuffee never seemed credible to me; their desperation for a big deal was palpable. I heard some astonishing stories at the time, but I am more discreet than the directors who spoke to Ivan Fallon for his account of the background to the merger. I'm grateful to Fallon for busting the persistent myth that Gordon Brown forced the deal on Lloyds, though that is the limit of my gratitude. The book is a real stinker. It's badly written, ill-informed and cravenly tells the story on behalf of Lloyds' board.

He says that Lloyds wanted nothing to do with whizzy financial products, but CEO Eric Daniels spearheaded an expansion of Lloyds's markets business. I was hired as a risk manager in their Products & Markets business, which was keen to bring in outside expertise to support its growth. It was too little, too late to have had much impact on its profits—either positively in the boom years, or negatively afterwards. But that side of their strategy is wholly neglected. Lloyds was an odd mixture of conservatism and risk-taking. Its corporate book was less risky than its competitors, and it avoided sub-prime mortgage lending. But it pursued a number of high-risk acquisitions (most of which were not concluded), and risked its reputation by selling payment protection aggressively, resulting in huge compensation payments. Incredibly, Fallon thinks payment protection was a good product.

I suspect the problem is not merely that Fallon is ignorant of finance, but also that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. He repeats things that he's only half understood, seemingly without realising there's anything more to it. The book is littered with errors of fact and misunderstandings. He thinks banks lend to each other with terms up to five years (five days would be a relatively long term for inter-bank lending, p. 50). He doesn't know the difference between assets and liabilities, claiming that securitisation would have reduced gearing by "removing liabilities and replacing them with bonds" (p. 155; securitisation removes assets from the balance sheet). He thinks there would be 'no risk' if the government funded Lloyds to purchase Northern Rock, because it would be backed by securities. And he claims it was 'mathematically impossible' for money market funds to repay less that par. I don't know what he means by 'mathematically impossible'.

Some of the writing is merely careless, and the proliferation of minor errors make me suspicious of the whole book. He describes Spencer House as the ancestral home of Lady Diana. It's an irrelevant piece of background fluff, but it's not even altogether accurate as her family has rented it out for generations. He adds the superfluous detail of the guests going 'next door' for dinner, when in fact the dining room is downstairs from the great room. Finally, the writing style itself can be excruciating. I laughed aloud at the description of the charity 'Wellbeing of Women' as one that "researched obstetrical and gynaecological issues of great importance to women and their ability to give safe delivery to their babies" (p. 89).

Fallon had unique access the the protagonists, but he was ill-equipped to ask the right questions or understand the answers. I'm aware that my review seems one-sided and excessively harsh. But books like this are written for a general audience; the specialists who read them rarely write reviews. As a result they get an easy ride, and Fallon seems to have felt no pressure to carry out even elementary fact-checking. That does his readers a disservice and deserves to be called out, all the more so when this may stand as the definitive account of an important story. This book does not deserve the attention of posterity.