Monday, 30 March 2015

'Pose Day': a new angle on museum selfies

Embedded image permalink
Picture: National Gallery
Sunday was 'pose day'. It's part of museum week, a Twitter initiative that encourages people to pose for selfies in front of works of art, striking a pose that imitates or reflects the art. Some people think it encourages new audiences, and others think it's harmless fun. But I think it's degrading to all concerned, reducing works of art to props and reducing museums to foils for people to brand themselves. I discussed it with CBC this week, but here are some more elaborated reflections.

There is something deadening about seeing crowds lining up to take their pictures in the same pose in front of the same work of art, rarely pausing to look at the backdrop. A picture that might embody the highest religious ideals or the profoundest philosophical thought, or simply the apogee of artistic technique, is cheapened when treated as an opportunity for a cheap visual joke. The National Gallery even took pictures of mannequins in front of pictures from its collection (above). It's a daft stunt that trivialises the art. And the visitors themselves are missing out. If they slow down and look they could start to understand why some works of art are appreciated as masterpieces. 

Some works of art reward close study of technique. Others - the greatest - are transcendent and inspirational. It's thrilling to stand before a late Rembrandt or a great Poussin; they represent the highest level of individual human achievement. Unlike modern medicine and science, technology and industry, great works of art embody the creative spirit of a single person, however much they rely on learned technique or reflect their times. Going to art galleries is a chance to step outside our own humdrum concerns and be inspired, to seek to understand ideas that are sometimes alien and to engage with the mind of the creator. For some that inspiration is technical - how was this painted, and by whom? For others it might be more historical, or spiritual. Appreciation isn't automatic; rewards are proportionate to effort, and often requires guidance. But instead of guidance, museums offer cheap gimmicks like selfies and 'pose day'. 

The impetus for all this nonsense doesn't come from patrons. It's being pushed by museums themselves, which now frown on lofty sentiments about art. They seek to make it as much as possible about us, and to bring it down to the must mundane level. They are absolving themselves of the responsibility to explain, offering instead cheap commoditised fun. The curators themselves have devoted their lives to studying art; they must surely think it's worthwhile. They understand what makes a picture great. But the highlights are now flaunted as nothing more than photo opportunities, tokens of high culture that flatter the selfie-taker. 

At one level it ceases to matter whether a picture is even authentic if it's just to be used as background. But at another level I think it does matter to patrons; they do go to museums hoping to participate in a cultural experience. It matters that the backdrop has been identified as a masterpiece, even if they don't know why it has been designated great. The promoters of 'pose day' are cheating them. They are offering a pretend shortcut that requires no effort, but which equally offers no real reward. Promoting pose day shows contempt for visitors, substituting a simulacrum for the actual experience of engaging with art. The visitors leave with a cute photo, but no new knowledge or insight.

Embedded image permalinkThe icon of all that's worst about the modern museum is the image of photo-wielding crowds in front of the Mona Lisa. But now even this is turned around and presented as virtue. These pictures were tweeted by the Louvre itself, celebrating the idea that a picture can be like a celebrity. Rather than see this impoverished experience for what it is, we are told to enjoy it as if we are taking the role of the paparazzi. Playing at being a celebrity photographer is elevated as the highest ideal of the modern commodified museum visit. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Wtewael exhibition in Utrecht

Pleasure and Piety: The art of Joachim Wtewael Centraal Museum Utrecht to 25 May (then to Washington DC and Houston)

These two small paintings on copper both show Vulcan catching his girl Venus in flagrante with Mars. They're both exquisite and explicit little masterpieces brimming with those wonderfully contorted mannerist figures that Joachim Wtewael famous for. But what a different mood he creates. In the first version, from the Mauritshuis, there's a sense of foreboding. Venus guiltily averts her gaze. Mars points an accusing finger, but his expression belies his anxiety. This is Serious Stuff indeed. The later version in the Getty is more warmly coloured, and terror gives way to glee. Mars slaps his face ('doh!'), Venus looks away wearily ('what a fine mess you've gotten us into'). Everyone else seems to be enjoying their embarrassment. It's wonderful to see these two pictures together in the first major exhibition of this fascinating artist. 

Joachim Wtewael was a big cheese in early seventeenth century Utrecht. He was a successful businessman and investor, and he was allied with the more conservative Calvinists. Imagine that - the more conservative Calvinists! But I think the Getty's Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan gives better insight into his outlook on life than his political alliances. Love and Lust is the exhibition's title in Dutch, and I like it better than Pleasure and Piety. Even in the religious pictures, I see lust more than piety.

Wtewael was also a success as an artist, though he didn't need the money and kept many of his own paintings. But after his death he fell from favour and he was little known. He became fashionable again in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the pictures in this show were acquired by American museums. It was part of a general revival of interest in Northern mannerism, which had been neglected as either a footnote to Italian mannerism or a prologue to the Dutch golden age. The exhibition explains Wtewael mainly in a northern context, emphasising his learning from Prague court artist Bartholomeus Spranger and borrowing from prints by Hendrik Goltzius. But I wonder how much was taken more directly from the high renaissance, which he would have experienced on his travels in France and Italy. Dramatic poses and extreme foreshortening reveal ambition to incorporate the highest achievements of Renaissance art. It doesn't quite work; Wtewael doesn't have the solid grounding of the Italians, nor their knowledge of anatomy. Biceps twist like dough rather than flex as muscles, and all his figures seem to have the same oddly textured torsos.

I can understand why some people don't like him, but I love his crazy vision, those wonderfully contorted poses and choreographed masses of figures, the rich range of colouring from pastel shades to vibrant acidic contrasts depending on the mood. He had an instinct for drama, but also a great sense of fun.
Photo    Photo
He loved animals; cats and dogs abound. On the left is a delightful donkey from the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and right is a cat from Caritas, which is with Johnny van Haeften. He clearly lacked Leonardo's interest in precise observation of nature if he thought that's how cats drink, but this is very early for such characterful animals. Walt Disney avant la lettre.

Although he could paint for his own amusement, his pictures are really varied. I'd thought his good works were the early ones, but it's not as simple as that. Even the earliest pictures vary in quality. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis hangs next to The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche. Both are from about the same date, and both are fine pictures, but the Peleus and Thetis is far superior. The portraits are competent but unexciting. The kitchen scenes are derivative, and The Fruit and Vegetable Seller (above) is particularly weak. I thought maybe a Peter Wtewael, or at any rate a collaboration. The background scene (detail above) is quite crudely painted, and far removed from Joachim's refinement. It's attributed in full in both the exhibition catalogue and Anne Lowenthal's catalogue raisonné; perhaps they assume the broad technique is because it was intended to be hung high as an overmantel, and perhaps they are right. The kitchen scenes aren't great, but they show that the frequent assertion that Wtewael didn't engage with naturalism isn't quite true.

I was glad to see the full range of Wtewael's work in this show. The extraordinary quality and inventiveness of his best pictures is all the more striking against his more routine and derivative works. The catalogue is excellent, with short but intelligent and informative essays, thorough catalogue entries and good reproductions. The catalogue speculates about the role of his studio in producing copies and variants, and I'd love to have seen some possible examples alongside authentic works to get a sense of the studio's operation. I'd like to have seen more of the drawings too; the selection in the show is meagre, which is especially disappointing after reading Stijn Alpers's great chapter in the catalogue, which suggests that a lot of the attributed works might be workshop replicas. It would have been good to see some of those comparisons for ourselves.

There will be more drawings and more paintings on the US leg of the show. Weirdly a third version of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan will be in both US venues, but not in Utrecht - despite the fact that it currently hangs in Amsterdam. I don't know what they were thinking in disallowing us that comparison; maybe a misplaced concern for symmetry in the display? It surely can't be a conservation issue if it's able to travel to the US. But my more profound reservation about the Utrecht exhibition was the truly dreadful staging, which is possible the worst I've ever seen.
The lighting created shadows from the frames that obscured material parts of Wtewael's small pictures. In this on the figures point towards a head that can't be seen. This photograph actually lightens the obscured section, which is invisible in the exhibition.
Even my favourite, the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis was partly obscured. Here's a detail from the shadows, showing how much is hidden:
It amazes me that pictures can be sent across the globe so they can be seen together, only for the effect to be ruined by thoughtless presentation.
Another picture is spoiled by a big lump of dirt inside the glass vitrine. The thing that makes me really angry about details like this is not only that it so impinges on our ability to appreciate the art, but also that so many museums will strip a painting down and re-do it if there's so much as a speck of discoloured retouching. They'll restore at great cost and risk and often causing irreversible damage, all in the name of making the picture look better. But then they won't spend five minutes cleaning the glass in front of it.

I made a special daytrip to Utrecht to see this show, taking time off work to fly to Amsterdam and get the train to Utrecht. Not only that, I had to endure passport control at Standsted Airport (if you've been, you'll know what I'm talking about). All that to see this exhibition. And yet the organisers couldn't be bothered to take five minutes to clean the glass sufficiently for a key exhibit to be seen unobscured.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Recent reading: history and politics

Sven Beckert Empire of Cotton: A new history of global capitalism Allen Lane 2014 £30

The title of this outstanding book should be reversed. It is a detailed and closely researched study of the cotton industry, but its importance lies in what it tells us about the development of global capitalism. Beckert doesn't engage directly with other accounts of global capitalism, but by looking a single industry - the leitmotif of the industrial revolution - he reveals a great deal that is pushed to the background by other scholars. 

Beckert rehabilitates the notion of 'primitive capitalism', which he calls 'war capitalism'. Before new cotton-producing technologies, Europeans were committed to "armed trade, indiustrial espionage, prohibitions, restrictive trade regulations, domination of territories, capturing of labor, removal of indigenous inhabitants, and the state-sponsored creation of territories" (p. 53). The actual volume of trade was relatively low, but its significance was profound in reshaping global production and transforming social relations across the globe. We are accustomed to accounts of the growth of free markets that emphasise cultural and institutional factors; Beckert reminds us that the creation of the free market was underwritten by force.

But it didn't appear that way, because industrialisation took hold away from the sharpest edge of war capitalism. In the US, it was the north that industrialised, with its free labour, rather than the slave-dominated south. Globally it was freer countries in western Europe that industrialised, rather than the more brutally militarised slave holding societies like Brazil and Cuba. Their slave economies "concentrated capital, labor, and entrepreneurial talent on plantations, limited the size of markets, made the region unattractive to European immigrants, and did not force white yeoman farmers into wage work (unlike, say, in New England and the Black Forest)" (p. 171). Cheap cotton imports from the UK also destroyed the indigenous cotton industry in India, undermining state capacity and economic potential. 

Beckert's analysis of Indian cotton production relative to American is perceptive. The British were frustrated by their failure to promote production on the scale of the vast monoculture in the American south, but it can be explained by specific conditions in India - particularly the relative abundance of labour but scarcity of capital. Indian producers were responding rationally to different incentives. His explanation is clear and convincing, one of many fascinating points of detail.

The book is well written and meticulously researched. The footnotes are exemplary, and have sent me off to pursue lots of interesting references. But the narrative is lively and engaging, and an important corrective to excessively panglossian accounts of the development of capitalism. 
Mark Greif The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and fiction in America, 1933-1973 Princeton University Press 2015

This impressive book digs into a neglected period in the history of ideas, but one that I've long thought under-rated and unjustly neglected. Greif approaches through the trope of 'crisis of man' that was portentously agonised over. Through depression, fascism and war it seemed that something had gone very wrong with civilization, and public intellectuals of the time were inclined to look for causes in human nature itself. Unfortunately this theme does the period no favours; Greif has chosen to focus on some of the worst thinking of the period.

Greif is sensitive to the historically specific ways that ideas were deployed. An interest in universal history seems to hark back to the enlightenment, but in the 'crisis of man' years it was linked to a search for what went wrong, trying to identify the turn where civilization went bad. Like the best intellectual history, Greif is strong on context and explores the links between ideas that are often analysed separately. The book is heavy-going in parts, and demands a degree of familiarity with debates in intellectual history, but is rewarding and revealing.  

I must defer to Greif's encyclopaedic knowledge of the period, but I raised a sceptical eyebrow at his assertion that Boasian cultural relativism was marginalised, and human rights discourse ascendant in the 1940s. My perception is that human rights talk took off much later, but that cultural relativism gained stature earlier. By the 1960s people found the crisis of man literature unhelpful, its promise unfulfilled. It looked to them, as it does to us, overgeneralised and contradictory. But in turning away from the crisis of man discourse, the 1960s continued a trend away from human subjectivity and universal humanity. The fractured politics and fractious theories of our age avoid some of the absurdity of 'crisis of man' talk, but I for one wish we could regain something of the universal and transcendent. 

Greif's typology of political ideas today rests on a division between justice and liberation, human rights discourse versus radical theory. I think that's a helpful distinction at the theoretical level, but I question its import in practical politics. It seems to me that advocates of human rights often ground their beliefs in decentred theory rather than natural law. And scratch the surface of even the most cynical poststructuralist and you'll often find a political adherence to the human rights agenda, even if ungrounded. Rortyian pragmatism rules in practice, even if not always in theory.

Greif fears the re-emergence of crisis of man talk in the context of environmental politics, wisely concluding that asking questions like "who we fundamentally are" is the wrong question that will lead to preprogrammed answers. The crisis of man discourse will "rule and regulate what is thinkable, what must be spoken of and genuflected to, collecting participants and legitimacy rather than accomplishing consequential thought" (p. 328-9). Amen to that!
Tamás Krausz Reconstructing Lenin: An intellectual biography Monthly Review Press 2015 £63.53

Lenin is another under-rated and under-read thinker, victim of cold warriors who can't distinguish his thought from Stalin's later actions. Krausz gives other biographers short shrift, rightly saying that they are more illuminating of their authors' prejudices than their subject's thought. This book is sympathetic to Lenin, from the Lukacs/Meszaros tradition, and he really captures Lenin, putting his thought in an intellectual and a political context. It's much the most sophisticated study of Lenin that I've read. 

Krausz notes that "it would be the quintessence of ahistoricity if we were to overlook the fact that the personality under discussion was a revolutionary politician for whom science and theory were tools for the realization of political and social goals" (p. 180). And Krausz understands that project well, and sensibly resists discussing too much the subsequent debates about Lenin's legacy within the left and the right. Those debates are still of some minor historical interest, but they have played out and history has moved on.

The quotation also encapsulates the bad in this book. Although it is well structured, the writing doesn't dazzle. The ideas bring it to life, but the style is sometimes deadening. But the ideas are still exciting and remain relevant for an understanding of twentieth century political thought, and for an understanding of certain newer debates now that thinkers like Zizek are drawing on Lenin once more.

George Friedman Flash Points: The emerging crisis in Europe Scribe 2015 £14.99

There's a lot of rather conventional and familiar history in this book, and a lot of the personal narrative was unilluminating. But there are some real insights too. Friedman is an old-fashioned realist schooled in geopolitics, and with Germany resurgent and Russia bellicose it is perhaps time to reassess some of these old insights. I thought his anecdotes on German culture were particularly acute ("a Saturday night in Berlin will introduce you to some of the more bizarre ways a human being can live", p. 154). And the book is a solid guide to some old and intractable tensions that are perhaps more salient than we've come to believe.

Mats Alvesson The Triumph of Emptiness: consumption, higher education and work organization Oxford University Press 2013 £16.99

I ought to have liked this book. I share Alvesson's concern with the consumerist ethos that has come to pervade education, and the guff that's written about business management. But the book's structure is over-determined and despite agreeing with much of the argument, I didn't learn much from it. He's also too uncritical of sources that support his claims, such as the study showing that most students don't improve their writing skills over their degree. Alison Wolf's book Does Education Matter? covers much of the same ground much better. And Lucy Kellaway's FT column is better and more entertaining on corporate stupidity and philistinism.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Plus ça change

James Millingen Some Remarks on the state of learning and the fine-arts in Great Britain J. Rodwell 1831

London is still blessed with a handful of outstanding second hand bookshops where you can find all manner of things you'd never have thought to look for on Amazon. At the  wonderful Any Amount of Books I found this battered pamphlet from 1831 that advances strikingly modern arguments about state support for the arts. It's rapidly disintegrating, but pages were still uncut. It nearly died unread, which is especially sad given the disproportionate attention paid to some of our contemporary reports on the arts, which ought to die unread. It's sometimes unsophisticated and sometimes crudely elitist, but its flamboyant disdain for the plebs shines oblique light on the more politely expressed snobbish sentiments of today's faux-egalitarians. 

Millingham shares the modern belief that the arts are a good investment, but he has an honourable reticence about making a merely economic argument. He quotes French director-general of finances Necker: "Learning and science repay the State with usury the assistance which the State affords to those who profess and cultivate them", and then calculates the French government's income from the estimated 5,000 (!) tourists in Paris at any given time. He hopes this will "prove a satisfactory answer to the Utilitarian and the Sordid, and shew them, that what is honorable, is generally profitable at the same time". Utilitarian and sordid. I like that.

A better argument is that state funding produces better art, though he regrettably has the modern vice of seeing 'better' in instrumental terms: "The relative decorum and piety observed on their stage, and which contrasts so much with the licentiousness and coarseness of our theatres, may be reckoned among the causes which have contributed to improve the manners of the middle and lower orders". Isn't this close to the attitude of many today, who want the lower orders herded into museums and theatres, but have a horror that they might watch Jeremy Clarkson or read the Daily Mail? Of course today they use terms like 'socially excluded' rather than 'lower orders', but the content echoes. 

In 1831, as today, luvvies were bemoaning the 'new' idea that state funding should be cut because the market will provide: "An opinion has, of late, been gradually gaining ground in this country, that it is neither a duty nor good policy, on the part of the State, to grant encouragements to the Sciences and Arts which should be left, like any other commodity, to find their natural price at the market, according to the degree of demand which may exist for them". So much for the idea that it's a novel conspiracy by neoliberals.

There's lots more in this short pamphlet. He complains that England's two universities have 'grown corrupted': "At one period, they were of easy access to young men of slender fortunes, but within the last century they have been rendered expensive, in order to become select and respectable. In other words, that they should produce men of fashion rather than men of learning" (p. 8). Today's universities are expected to churn  out credentialed employees rather than 'men of fashion', but they continue to grow corrupted. I bet people today would recoil at the term 'learned' lest it imply that others are 'less learned'.

I like Millingen's directness; none of the respectful networking of today's half-hearted critics. He tells us that learned societies contain a few learned men, but most "can no more be called men of learning than subscribers to a concert can be called musicians". Today we are more deferential, but many of the trustees of our great cultural institutions are still unqualified buffoons.

Cultural Capital by Robert Hewison

Picture: Amazon
Robert Hewison Cultural Capital: The rise and fall of creative Britain Verso 2014 £14.99

This narrative history of British cultural policy from 1997 to 2012 ruthlessly skewers the comic ineptitude of successive government attempts to corral the arts sector towards instrumental ends. The purveyors of managerial efficiency squandered money on white elephant projects and hamstrung arts professionals with meaningless targets and constant monitoring. The managers couldn't manage. Even widely-lauded policies had unintended consequences; free admission was intended to increase access, but visits by lower socio-economic groups actually fell. This book is a compelling and damning account of years of ineptitude, but the critique is one-sided. Hewison focuses on government policy, but he neglects the role of the cultural sector itself in the trends he describes. He is too ready to attribute all ills to 'neoliberal' ideology, which cannot bear the weight of his argument.

Neoliberalism is usually understood as a doctrine seeking extension of the free market - free trade, less government intervention, using markets to set prices and allocate resources. Hewison describes the opposite: removing the market mechanism with free museum entry and increased bureaucratic management by central government. Neoliberals would heartily endorse much of Hewison's criticism of government policy. Hewison doesn't explain the links to neoliberal thinkers; the term is derogatory rather than analytic. It's used in the same way that less thoughtful conservatives call anything egalitarian or liberal 'socialist', as if it's all on a continuum with show trials and gulags. Criticising neoliberalism is more like picking a team than analysing a problem.

I think the reason Hewison doesn't probe too deeply is that he doesn't want to address the complicity of the cultural sector itself in the trends he describes. Far from an alien imposition, the instrumental pursuit of goals like social inclusion and economic growth were being ardently promoted from within the cultural sector well before the Blair government adopted them. Radical museologists and critical theorists and multiculturalists have become increasingly influential. And the cultural sector's clamour for money has long been supported by claims that it's a good investment. The cultural sector didn't reluctantly sell out in return for increased funding; they were actively marketing themselves to policymakers by asserting that they could meet targets and deliver government objectives.

It's sometimes hard to discern whether Hewison is criticising a policy's effectiveness or its objective. He discusses generally some of the dilemmas of multiculturalism and diversity, but seems mainly critical of the ineffectiveness of the policies pursued rather than their aim. He is downright patronising when he writes that, "Unsurprisingly, minorities are interested in art that reflects their own experience" (p. 82). Can you imagine turning that around and saying "white middle class people are interested in art that reflects their own experience"? High culture gets to be high culture because it speaks to universal experience.

Despite his fondness for writing about neoliberalism, the discussion of economics is the weakest part of the book. He repeats the old saw that art is ideal for money laundering, but he thinks it's because, except for old masters, it's easily moved and can be traded in any currency. How many commodities does that not apply to? Surely unique works of art are especially traceable. There are reasons why the art market might be targeted for money laundering, but that's not it.

Then he says there's an "imbalance between an excessive accumulation of surplus capital and a lack of consumption to sustain growth. The solution was to stimulate production by offering 'fictitious capital' in the form of credit - hence the development of the sub-prime mortgage market in America that engendered the global crisis [...] although it is logical to borrow to invest, there is a strong temptation not to invest in production, but in assets such as stocks and bonds, futures, derivatives and property, where value is generated by competitive demand and governed by sentiment. Profits come out of thin air" (p, 157-8). Wowsers. I'm not even sure what that means, but I take comfort from confidence that Hewison doesn't know either. Companies issue bonds and shares to raise money to invest in production. But somehow bonds and shares are not investment in production. 

He thinks art is emblematic because it has 'almost no' material value and is worth what people might pay for it in the future. A financial asset is worth the present value of future cashflows. But actually that's not true of art. If it's really about future value then the art market is just a ponzi scheme, everyone buying on the basis of what the next person will pay, on the basis of their assumption of what the next person will pay. Obviously the expectation of future value is a consideration when buying art, but it is a consumption good before it's an investment good. 

This book tells people what they want to hear. Neoliberalism is the big ideological villain. Government should shower the cultural sector with money, but otherwise leave it alone. Hewison's account of government policy is important and damning, but it's only half the story. There are other ideas that are more subtle than neoliberalism, but more concretely damaging to culture. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Will no one stand up for the selfie stick?

Picture: Hyperallergic
Museums are banning 'selfie sticks', the extendable poles that attach to your phone to take Bigger Better Selfies. It's a no-brainer, really. Long metal poles and distracted visitors focused on their selfies are a recipe for disaster in museums brimming with fragile and precious treasures. And it's an intrusion on other visitors' space, imposing a cordon around the selfie-taker. I don't blame people with selfie sticks; museums themselves are giving out the message that art exists so that it can be a backdrop for selfies. But oddly even people who have argued that people should be able to behave exactly as the please in 'their' museums have endorsed a selfie stick ban. It's an intrusion too far, though I do wonder how the decide where to draw the line (and who gets to draw the line).

What has surprised me is the way the story has taken off. Why has it captured the imagination? I think it epitomises the tensions of the museum experience today. The 'official' message is that museums must become more accessible and relevant: fewer rules, more fun, more technology. But a lot of people are actually uneasy with that proposition. Just read the comment threads, here at the Guardian for example, to see many people railing against the behaviour of selfie-taking visitors. In my experience it's not just crusty old art lovers who are objecting. People don't want their museums to be simply an extension of the street; they actually want a differentiated experience, they want to engage with art and they want to learn more.

I've led a cloistered life, and I'm uncomfortable in all kinds of social situations. I'm still not quite sure which cutlery I should be using in nice restaurants, and no matter how much I try I still can't get a tie to sit right. But for many people the ritual is part of the point of a nice restaurant - dressing up and using the right tools is part of their pleasure. How daft would it be to insist that restaurants become more accessible by letting everyone eat with their fingers (and, incidentally, taking photos of meals is frowned on in nice restaurants too). It's not just high-end restaurants; pop concerts and sports have their rituals too, and people actively seek to become part of them, learning and adopting shared forms of behaviour. There's nothing elitist about it, provided anyone in principle can partake. 

People - even young people and even people who like to share selfies on social media - appreciate differentiated experiences. There are places to dress up, and places to dress down, venues for raucous behaviour and others demanding reverence. We all instinctively get this. We don't need to be told to behave differently at a wedding or a funeral, a football match or a night at the opera. But museums struggle with the concept. They pay half-hearted lip service to the idea that some people go to look at art and might be distracted by selfie-taking mobs, suggesting they might spare an hour a week when the museum would prohibit selfies. But the mainly emphasise their openness, their willingness to let people behave exactly as they please. Their obsession with relevance and access is actually ruining the experience for everyone, because if museums are nothing special there's no good reason for people to go in the first place.

Banning selfie sticks is a good start, but it's only a start. Bring back the photo ban, National Gallery!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Iconoclasm in Glasgow

Basalt bust, Egyptian, circa 2000 BC </br> © CSG CIC
Picture: Glasgow Life
Last week a museum curator in Glasgow said that if five ancient Egyptian effigies are destroyed when they're sent on an outreach tour for children to play with it won't matter because they have more of the dusty old things. The curator, William Docherty, works for Glasgow Life, which is the body that was responsible for the work that was completely destroyed by a faulty humidification plant recently. It is also responsible for the Burrell Collection, which is about to be rented out on a world tour to raise money. Docherty has no known links with ISIS.

Docherty is talking about objects that have survived literally thousands of years, and which have been selected for the permanent collection of a major museum. He is not only sanguine about the loss of five Egyptian effigies each year; putting them at risk of damage is a point of pride. They can congratulate themselves on their bravery in loaning objects despite the risks involved, because they seem to think art and history has no value beyond the uses that they, the curators, make of them. 

Docherty's LinkedIn profile is revealing. He says that he is "passionate about connecting people through exciting museum experiences which enrich lives. Engaging communities in critical dialogue validating their right to 'have a voice' by determining content development". Nothing about art. And actually it's not really about audiences either. It's about putting the work of the curator at the centre. The choice of words is meaningful; he does not talk about the right to free speech (a real right, enshrining freedom to speak out and freedom to hear ideas unfiltered), but the 'right to have a voice' (which is a bullshit right to join a facilitated workshop and be patronised by a civil servant). 

I don't think Docherty even understands the ideas he espouses. He says that "Participants are given agency to co-create their own narratives which reflect new insight from personal lived experience". Agency isn't given; it is taken. Agency is not a gift bestowed upon is, it is inherent in our humanity. But again Docherty elevates his own role, assuming that agency is something that he can provide. And note that they are not creating narratives; they are co-creating narratives. Again it is Docherty's role that is key. This isn't really about validating community voices. It's about validating William Docherty.

Glasgow has done some fine work refurbishing old galleries and winning funding and support for its museums. But its globally important collections are at risk of being reduced to mere tools for community outreach, and commodities that can be rented out to fund the salaries of the social workers in charge. That's a degrading fate to museums that were once the pride of a great city. But for worse for posterity is that Docherty's gang will cheerfully facilitate their physical destruction in pursuit of their trivial mission.

Updated 13/3. My original correspondent writes:
Docherty's remarks were not picked up from thin air. I was at the lecture and 'reported' them to Michael. The lecture was given at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle For Sovereignty and Independence in Skopje, Macedonia on the 6th of March 2015.

A few tempestuous days are behind me, so I can't quote Mr. Docherty word for word, but his statement went something like this: The museum has 150 ancient Egyptian artifacts, effigies. If five are destroyed, it is not a big deal, the museum has more. It is not the end of the world.

What I could gather from the lecture is that this was not a decision made by Mr Docherty, but rather that this is the philosophy of the museum (Glasgow Life) which he apparently is enthusiastically supporting. It was a semi crowded room and couldn't not see his face, but the expression of the translator (the lecture was in English and the organizers provided simultaneous translation) mirrored my own, it was one of shock.

The problem here isn't that one individual in a museum values interaction over the preservation of the artefacts in his care, but rather that this has become official museum policy. There were a number of images during the lecture but I will leave it to you to try to imagine a five year old handling a 2000 year old artifact (fortunately, only one of 150 in the museums collection).

One final note, one of the images Mr Docherty showed in his lecture was of a youth of perhaps 15 handling a claymore. The sword was almost as big as he was. The photo was taken in another museum 'managed' (?) by Glasgow Life. He was obviously having loads of fun. Who wouldn't? You went to a museum and somebody just handed you a CLAYMORE. I know I would start screaming FREEDOM, FREEDOM instantly. The thing is... the sword was a replica.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery

Picture: Des Moines Art Center
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends National Portrait Gallery London to 25 May

Marie-Louise Pailleron stares straight out at us in this arresting portrait, sitting rigidly with her legs pointed straight out at us. Or does she? If you can get to see the original, currently in the Sargent show in London, try standing to the side. Wherever you stand, she seems to be pointed towards you and staring at you, as if every vantage point is the 'right' vantage point. It's an astonishing feat of illusionism, and it's surely deliberate. Sargent took over eighty sittings to paint Marie-Louise, and we know he ardently studied old masters who captured similar effects.

Once you notice the effect, you start to see ambiguity in the way the dress is draped over her knees, adding to the uncanny overall effect. It adds a note of dynamism to a picture that at first glance seems rigidly static. The expressions are also ambiguous: sullen, bored, menacing? Or just resigned to their fate of dozens and dozens of sittings with Mr Sargent? The picture reproduces badly, losing not only dynamism but also colour. The reds in the background are much richer in the original, and the rug more legible.

We're more accustomed to seeing pictures reproduced in a book or on a screen than in real life, and it influences the way we look at paintings. In museums, people tend to stand directly in front of each picture; few move around to see it from different angles. Some pictures were meant to be seen from below: grand still lifes of hunting trophies meant to be hung above other pictures, and pictures intended for particular positions in churches or civic buildings. Tour guides direct everyone to the anamorphic skull in Holbein's Ambassadors, but it's a notable exception. I'm convinced that some artists thought carefully about how pictures would appear from the side, Rembrandt in particular, but we're no longer attuned to look for it because we look at pictures as if they're illustrations in a book rather than objects hung on walls. It's clear to me that Sargent is drawing on this tradition, and succeeding brilliantly. 

It's especially hard to appreciate in this exhibition, because they've hung it in a corner, so you have to strain to see it from the left. I find it hard to understand why they'd make such a weird choice, concealing one of the most striking and impressive features of this picture. Here are some speculative explanations:
  • Like the 'white/gold dress', I'm seeing something others can't. I think it's unlikely, because when I've pointed this feature to others they've been able to see what I'm describing. Unless they're just humouring me; that happens a lot.
  • The curators haven't noticed, in which case they've misunderstood this picture.
  • The curators have noticed, but don't think it's important enough to mention in the catalogue or allow people to see. The exhibition emphasises his modernity, so maybe they want to downplay art historical continuity.
  • Perhaps they anticipate that the exhibition will be too crowded for people to move around the picture, so they are encouraging people to take a snapshot view and move on rather than try to negotiate the crowds to see the different aspects of this picture.
Unless the first explanation holds, the hanging reflects badly on the curators.

I'd been warned that this exhibition is overcrowded even by the claustrophobic standards of London blockbusters, but I wanted to go specifically to see this portrait, the only major Sargent in the show that I haven' seen before, and one I'm unlikely to see outside an exhibition as it's owned by the Des Moines Art Center in Idaho. You can only see it if you go at opening time, but it's worth it. I was also impressed by the small, informal portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. But overall I came away appreciating Sargent less. He created some consummate masterpieces, especially early in his career. His later work is consistently good, but rarely great; it doesn't excite me like the Pailleron children, or the splendid Dr Pozzi at Home, hung in the same room. Many Sargent portraits don't stand out from those of his good contemporaries who are less known and less shown.

Sargent is a crowd-pleaser, so he gets exhibited again and again. The pretext for this show is that his portraits of artists and friends give a different perspective on his art. I didn't see that, and the catalogue entries sometimes strain to justify the connection. Some are rich commissioners who happen to have a personal connection to Sargent, others are not really 'artists' (Wertheimer was a wealthy dealer, for example, though he commissioned Sargent prolifically). I couldn't see a common theme in the pictures selected for this exhibition that you wouldn't see in a broader retrospective of Sargent. Some of his portraits of artists and friends are dashing and original, but so are some of his portraits of strangers outside the art world. And not everything in this show is original or great.

The catalogue claims that the exhibition "challenges the conventional view of John Singer Sargent as a bravura painter of the old school, of limited imagination and originality". But it's utter nonsense to claim that as the 'conventional view', and in seeking to distance itself from that straw man they're in danger of overlooking points of continuity - as with the Pailleron child portrait I discuss above. They're so keen to emphasise a story that they lose balance and nuance. Sargent was both a bravura painter of the old school who appreciated and learned from the old masters, and he was an imaginative and original painter in the milieu of modernists. You don't have to choose between tradition and imagination.

It's sad that museums keep re-doing the same stable of predictable popular artists, each time pretending they've found a new angle. There are so many excellent portraitists of the period who are relatively neglected. How about a Boldini show instead, for example? It's the people who organise exhibitions in major museums who really show limited imagination and originality.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Art destroyed in Glasgow

Picture: Herald
A work of art on loan in Glasgow has been destroyed by a faulty humidification plant that was provided by a third party contractor. It was on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, which perpetually rents out large parts of its collection on global tours with no larger scholarly or aesthetic purpose beyond raising cash. It was on loan to 'Glasgow Life', the group of apparatchiks responsible for Glasgow's museums, who recently rubbished NG director Nicholas Penny's concerns about loan risks when they got Sir William Burrell's will overturned so they can rent out his collection on a grand global tour too. 

This tragic story is full of lessons: lessons about the risks to works of art on loan, the risk of trusting Glasgow Life with anything and the dangers of using third party contractors. But the National Galleries of Scotland have responded with a big shoulder-shrug. 'Shit happens', seems to be the message. They acknowledge that works of art are vulnerable, but underline the importance of sharing and confirm that they'll continue merrily lending to Glasgow Life, before they can even have had the opportunity to investigate what went wrong and identified lessons to be learned. The unseemly haste with which the confirmed business-as-usual suggests a cavalier attitude to risk assessment, and a view that loans will continue irrespective of risk. It's as if a bank that lost its shirt in sub-prime mortgages were to react with a press statement underlining above all its firm ongoing commitment to issuing more sub-prime mortgages, or the passport office reacted to complaints of delays by confirming that they won't be changing any of their working practices. 

Accidents do happen, and maybe no one can reasonably be held responsible for the damage in Glasgow. But let us not overlook the enormity of this. The first and most vital job of any museum is to ensure it protects the works of art in its custody. They have failed catastrophically: a work of art has been completely destroyed, and no one seems to think any investigation is needed, or anyone needs to be held to account, or anything needs to change. That attitude is culpable. I do not trust a museum that can be so blasé, and people should be held accountable for that failure. New leadership is obviously needed, and the trustees have a responsibility to take action if existing management won't.  

There is a currently fashionable fanaticism about lending that holds it is always good and always safe to lend. What began as a reasonable and sensible attempt to assess risk and promote access to art has become atrophied into an unshakable belief in the moral rightness of always lending. The fanatics take a ferociously defensive stance against any who question their ideology. This creates its own risks, because they come to believe that any damage that does happen must be hidden or minimised lest it gives succor to their misguided critics. It's rare for news of damage to reach the public, but I've heard confidentially of other examples hushed up, and of museums lying to lenders about the protection that will be given. The lending fanatics believe original works of art are important enough that they must be transported around the world to get maximum exposure. But do they care enough to preserve them?