Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Fighting over a kangaroo

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs
Picture: Guardian
Art History News makes a good defence of the National Maritime Museum's bid for the Stubbs paintings that the National Gallery of Australia wants. I'll be happy if it does stay in London, but I don't mind art going abroad provided it goes to a good home. I still back Australia - we've got lots of good Stubbs in London already, and pictures of Australian animals by a major artist seem to me to perfect acquisitions for the Australian NG. Australia is a bit of a schlep from London, but it's still part of the empire commonwealth after all.  

Wherever the pictures end up, I've enjoyed the debate. Both museums have put forward good arguments and the public discussion about museum acquisitions has been a welcome change from tedious slanging matches about diversity and inclusion and participation. Maurice Davies of the Museums Association, who is always wrong, disagrees. He thinks the curators care more about their own 'curatorial glory' than 'the people'. I suspect the people will be served better by the pursuit of curatorial glory than the invocation of 'the people'. It's an especially ironic comment from Davies because the Museums Association completely ignored 'the people's' response when they didn't agree with his agenda. And his solution of sharing the pictures between museums on opposite sides of the globe is daft; aside from the risk of damage, what happens if the co-owners disagree about a loan request or proposed conservation treatment? Fashionable sharing arrangements are inherently unsatisfactory. One institution will have to lose out in the Stubbs tussle. We'd all lose out if the Museums Association had its way.

Friday, 16 August 2013

'The Public' faces closure

The Public
Picture: Guardian
This white elephant in central England deservedly faces closure, as Oliver Wainwright explains in this excellent article in the Guardian. Museum curators like to boast about their focus on audiences rather than collections, with interactive displays and events emphasised over works of art. The Public took that to extremes, and the public wasn't impressed.

The Arts Council provided £31m plus £600k a year in running costs - almost exactly equal to the cost of all the artworks currently (Aug 2013) subject to UK export deferral, including a Rembrandt self-portrait, a couple of Stubbs and a classic Bentley. Amazing how much more willing people have been to pay for ephemeral buildings rather than eternal art. 

Incidentally those two Stubbs have been bought by the National Gallery of Australia - pictures of a dingo and a kangaroo. They're wonderful paintings that I'd love to keep on my doorstep, but we should really let them go. The National Gallery of Australia is the best home for them. 

Defend the humanities from Martha Nussbaum

Picture: Princeton University Press
Martha C. Nussbaum Not for Profit: Why democracy needs the humanities Princeton: Princeton University Press 2010

An ascendant philistinism sees the academic study of the arts and humanities as obscurantist and irrelevant. They say we need only science, technology, engineering and medicine; the rest are luxuries we can't afford.  Martha Nussbaum is right: the humanities need defending. But they especially need defending from false friends like Martha Nussbaum. This nasty little book makes the case for using the humanities to turn everyone into good liberal cosmopolitans. The argument is tendentious and divisive, and it just replaces one kind of narrow instrumentalism with another.

Nussbaum treats the humanities as a tool kit we can use to teach 'skills' necessary for democracy as if democracy emerged from the classroom. But hers is a very particular kind of democracy that defines away conservative ideas as inherently alien. For example, it's "crucial" that we "think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring to neither tradition nor authority" (p. 25). The term 'thinking well' is double edged; she means thinking morally as well as thinking effectively. At some level that's a truism - who want to think badly? But reading on, Nussbaum's idea of 'thinking well' means 'thinking as a liberal'. The rich tradition of conservative political theory is replete with claims about the value of deferring to tradition and authority. Of course that tradition is contested, but Nussbaum sees it simply as a bad habit that can be un-learned if you take a few courses in the humanities. Having ruled much of American political culture to be bad thinking, democracy seems to be what happens when the Democratic Party has an internal debate.  

Nussbaum defends platitudes about niceness against arguments of pantomime villains, telling us that we need to see fellow citizens as "people with equal rights ... not just as tools to be manipulated for one's own profit" (p,25). No doubt some people do regard others as tools to be manipulated for profit (even some people with liberal arts degrees, I suspect), but there is no public argument couched in such crass terms. 

She talks about the "pathology" of dividing the world into pure and impure (p.35), which is responsible for much "bad thinking" about international politics (p. 35). That's another swipe at conservatives, implying familiarity with Jonathon Haidt's widely discussed research on the link between conservative politics and feelings about purity and pollution. But it's unimaginative to link this "pathology" with racism, which is now almost universally reviled, rather than recognising its contemporary manifestations such as health zealotry. Surely the best example of the politics of purity today comes from anti-tobacco campaigners, although it's associated with liberalism rather than conservatism. I wonder if Nussbaum would criticise the public health lobby for its pathological belief in purity, or give it a pass because they're otherwise good liberals.

I despise Nussbaum's sanctimonious liberalism, I resent her bigoted rejection of illiberal ideas and I'm bored by her conventional and old-fashioned political causes. Now let me turn to the plain badness of her argument:
"abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture capable of constructively addressing the world's most pressing problems ... are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a 'citizen of the world'; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person" (p.7, my emphasis). 
More anti-conservatism: does 'decency' really require transcending local loyalties and acting as a citizen of the world? Conservatives who value local associations above abstract global citizenship are no less 'decent' than liberal cosmopolitans. But focus on the weakness of the argument here, manifest in the bit I emphasised - an association is asserted, but no causation is explained. Throughout the book Nussbaum asserts the values that are needed in the polity, and tells us that these values are inculcated by study of the humanities. An ability to think critically is useful, and it's something you develop through studying the humanities - that's true, but trite. How do the views and abilities of students change after studying the humanities? To what extent is the impact of studying the humanities mediated by the kind of students who choose humanities courses? A few science courses might help Nussbaum learn how to gather some relevant evidence for her claims.

Not for Profit is an ironic title for a book written by a professor at the University of Chicago, which is the sixth most expensive college in the US (around $60k a year). And it's third for professors' salaries (average $184k). Having pecuniary interest in a debate doesn't make you wrong, but Nussbaum is excessive in the claims she makes on her own behalf. It's commonly thought that the purpose of universities is economic - training a workforce that can compete globally. That view favours investment in scientific and professional subjects at the expense of the arts and humanities. Nussbaum's alternative is cynical; she just offers a different outcome (ethical and effective politics) that she asserts is better served by the humanities. Both approaches are instrumental, treating education as a means to achieving an external end. Many of the advocates of these positions have their noses in the trough; they are arguing for more cash. A plague on both their houses; the purpose of education is to become educated. It is its own end.

Conservatives have often criticised academia's liberal bias (Roger Kimbell's Tenured Radicals, Thomas Sowell's Intellectuals and Society, for example). I've always thought they were a bit paranoid, and the more populist rendition of these arguments sometimes slips into plain philistinism. But Martha Nussbaum seems to be playing up to their caricature of liberal bigotry. Her intolerant liberalism and self-interested advocacy is a poor example of how to behave in the public sphere.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Problems with participation

Here's a superb article by Judith Dobrzynski in the New York Times questioning the rush for museums to offer interactive experiences, noting that:

  • In their quest to be new and exciting, museums are actually becoming more alike, all offering the same kinds of tedious 'particpatory' experiences.
  • Cleveland's Museum of Fine Arts - one of the worst offenders - talked about how an installation would 'activate' the museum, as if all its wonderful art treasures were inert until a fatuous installation by Martin Creed brought it to life. I wrote a review of a spectacularly stupid Creed piece at the Tate, here.
  • Museums disdain expertise and defer instead to their audiences, consulting the public on acquistions and disposals, restoration and display of art - the things that museums are supposed to know something about. Museums become a place to hang out and feel important because they ask you stuff, rather than a place where you can learn and benefit from professionalism and expertise. Alexander Bortolot, a moron from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, tells Dobrzynski that 'young people' want museums to connect them to the local arts economy rather than listen to art experts.
All good points, and there's more to be said against the interactive trend. Museums can offer a profound and unique experience. They're not specialists in interactive entertainment. Putting the two together ruins the experience of art and puts people off real engagement. They're trying to compete for the 'interactive entertainment' audience to boost visitor numbers, losing sight of the different experience that museums ought to offer.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Do not touch - how hard is that?

Damaged statue at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Picture: BBC
BBC reports that a tourist broke the finger off a statue in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. They quote Monsignor Timothy Verdun saying "do not touch" is a "fundamental" rule of museum going that has been forgotten. How true. Touching art is not only commonplace, it's become accepted. Some museums are so keen to be accessible and 'customer-friendly' that their guards freely permit the handling of delicate and precious works of art. It's possibly the single greatest threat to cultural treasures today, far ahead of looting or war in its effect. Sometimes the damage is spectacular, but the real concern is the cumulative and irreversible wear and tear that's taking place on a colossal scale.

Some examples from my experience: The British Museum and Louvre freely permit touching; no guard would dream of challenging patrons who touch, stroke or sit on exhibits. I've seen visitors tapping pictures to find out whether they're painted on wood, and poking a canvas so hard that they hit the wall it was mounted on. The latter was at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, where the guard was utterly unperturbed, saying that it happens all the time and they try not to make a fuss. A guard at the National Gallery told me that he sees people stroking the figure of Jesus in religious paintings, although the Head of Security vigorously assures me that this sort of thing happens extremely rarely. On the other hand, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington I once spoke to an auditor who was taking photographs of damage to works of art. He showed me a picture of the streak across the varnished surface of a Bellotto where someone had stroked it, and several other examples identified that morning. The handful of glazed pictures at the NGA reveal dozens of fingerprints.

Museums need to remember that before anything else they are responsible for protecting the objects entrusted to their care. Sometimes that means they have to stop visitors behaving exactly as they please, and sometimes it means robustly challenging people who are putting objects at risk. Personally I'd take the approach illustrated by Jacques Callot, and have an 'installation' outside the Louvre and the BM along these lines, called 'art touchers': 
Plate 11: hanging scene, with condemned men hanged on a large tree.  c.1633
Picture: British Museum

Sunday, 4 August 2013

In praise of bad reviews

Picture: Opentable
Here's an excellent post by Ryan Sutton on negative restaurant reviews, taking up the claim that you should base a negative review on multiple visits 'because they deal with people's livelihoods'. Not so, says Sutton: 
An inaccurate, single-visit positive review, based on poor fact checking, poor eating, or poor writing, is no worse than an inaccurate, single-visit negative review. With a misplaced positive review, you’re wasting the hard-earned disposable income of those who visited the restaurant on your counsel, and you’re also taking money away from a better restaurant that your readers would have gone to otherwise. That’s just as bad as a “slam." Everyone loses.  
Quite right, and I'd like to see more critical art reviews too, instead of the identikit sycophancy from the media that still cover culture. Some prominent critics are slavering puppies that jump up and yap in delight at every indifferent novelty. Thankfully we have Brian Sewell and a few others of his ilk, but knowledgeable discernment is becoming scarce and critics seem too frightened of offending their art-world colleagues to condemn when condemnation is due. I've been amazed by the frankly abominable shows that have received adulatory reviews (most recently Michael Landy at the National Gallery).

You'd laugh if a critic gave a book of Shakespeare criticism five stars because Shakespeare is really good. But art critics do the equivalent all the time. They write about the greatness of the exhibition's subject without reviewing the exhibition. We know that Leonardo was a pretty good artist - which is as much as you'd learn from most of the reviews of the NG show. Critics seldom consider the quality of presentation - the wall text, the hang, the narrative structures. Still rarer is assessment of the underlying scholarship, any re-interpretation or re-attribution, which requires a degree of knowledge too often lacking. 

Criticism is an essential part of culture and the loss to the public sphere is profound. There has been a lot of focus on the loss of quantity from media cutbacks, which are indeed lamentable. But the decline in quality is the greater loss. Museums know that they can get away with mediocre crowd-pleasers because they won't get called out; there is no pressure for excellence. I suspect the greatest loss is in contemporary art where the market's judgment has superseded critical judgment, because there is so little informed criticism. One reason that the biggest galleries are squeezing out the rest is that smaller galleries don't get noticed by critics. 

I think the blogosphere is the great hope for the future. The best and most interesting reviews that I read are often on blogs, written by people who often have more specific knowledge than any generalist professional critic can have on a single topic. They are not beholden to editors requiring a consumerist yardstick (how many stars?), and they are not corrupted by privileged access to private views and foreign junkets on offer to professional critics. But there is also a lack of quality control (look at some of the nonsense that gets on this blog in the absence of editorial filter), and it's hard for blogs to get noticed. Time will tell.