Monday, 22 June 2015

What should we save?

Deliberate destruction of ancient remains by the Taliban and Islamic State force us to confront the tragic fragility of our cultural heritage. Fires have wrought terrible damage at Clandon Park and the Glasgow School of Art. And processes of decay and erosion take away more of what has survived. 'Saving' the past is a common trope among art historians. Art history is, after all, a history of objects. And psychologists tell us that we're predisposed to value what we already have more highly than what we might gain. But I can't always agree with the preservationist impulse, and a few very different recent examples have made me think about what we should save.
Image result for clandon park fire
Picture: Telegraph
The National Trust tells us that Clandon Park (above) will be rebuilt 'in some form' following the recent fire. I'm not sure what 'some form' means, but Clandon Park has gone forever. Reconstruction now would be pastiche. Maybe it would be a pretty pastiche, and a fine backdrop for the contents that were saved. But the cost will be immense, and it would be downright irresponsible to squander money and expertise on constructing a fake when there are so many other real and pressing preservation projects that need funding. The Clandon fire was a dramatic tragedy that has naturally captured the public's attention. The myriad smaller projects that could be funded instead of rebuilding Clandon are less newsworthy and less exciting, but far more worthy.
Picture: Irish Times
The Irish Times is keen to 'save' a group of pictures from the Beit collection, which are up for sale next month. They're a motley bunch, but include the wonderful Rubens above. The pictures are privately owned, and were only moved to Ireland in the 1950s. The best of the Beit pictures, including Velazquez, Vermeer, Metsu's greatest masterpieces and an exceptional Ruisdael were given to the National Gallery of Ireland. The pictures they're selling have no longstanding connection to Ireland or to Russborough House, where they were hung. Indeed, the family were poor stewards of Russborough, ripping out original fittings to make room for their pictures. The only reason for campaigning to 'save' these pictures is that they happen to have been in Ireland at a particular point in time. The thing I find most odd about this is that if the cost of these pictures were given to the National Gallery of Ireland they could buy far better pictures that are more worthy of their collection. These surely aren't the pictures they would choose to buy if they had a free choice. But no one is campaigning to give them an increased acquisition budget.
Picture: Telegraph
Saving the Frick Collection is a slogan I can wholly endorse, and I'm delighted they've abandoned their dreadful expansion plan. Congratulations to all involved in the campaign against it. But the campaign quickly fixated on the small garden (above) that would have been lost. It's a lovely little oasis by a famous garden designer, and the Frick was despicably dishonest in claiming that it was a temporary feature. Nevertheless, the loss of the garden was for me the least harmful part of the Frick's plan. I was far more concerned that the intimate experience would be over-ridden by a gargantuan extension to allow them to put on mega-blockbusters and show more contemporary art. The Met, just across the street, is a universal museum with the space and resources for big exhibitions. Why must the Frick do exactly the same? For hundreds of years we've been able to enjoy different kinds of museums - universal museums, house museums, smaller and quirkier museums with more specialist or more eclectic collections. Today every museum seems to be trying to be exactly the same as every other museum, showing lots of contemporary art (alongside old masters if you want to be really hip) and plenty of big blockbusters alongside a great cafe and plenty of parties. Everyone loves parties.
Visitors don't benefit. Why should they care whether a mega exhibition is at the Frick, the Met or somewhere else in Manhattan? The beneficiaries are the trustees and the curators. They get to work on a cool new project. They get the kudos of big exhibition openings. It's a corrupting trend that concerns me more than the preservation of garden, however charming. So yes, save the garden. But more important, stop them obliterating the Frick with their crass new museum. Preserving the ambiance of the Frick seems rather ethereal and hard to politicise, but it's the most important thing about the place. 
Picture: Victorian Society
I'm also happy that King's College London has scrapped a hideous planned extension, right next to the Courtauld Institute. The buildings that they would have demolished (above) add variety and interest to the street, and they have their charms. But they really aren't anything very special. I don't think there is a strong claim to 'save' them. In this case I don't see a strong case for 'saving' these buildings. But I do see a strong case for saving - or indeed creating - interesting and humane streetscapes. My objection was more to the replacement than to the demolition. I like that cities can be palimpsests and I think it's important to preserve London's Victorian heritage, but that doesn't mean keeping all of it. The greatest threat today, in my view, is the almost uniformly ugly, boring and domineering new buildings that are being created, rather than the outstanding character of the buildings that are being lost.

Picture: Amazon
Psychology gives us an insight into the preservationist impulse. A famous experiment divided people randomly into two groups. In one group everyone was given a mug, and asked how much they'd sell it for. The other group was asked how much they'd pay for the mug. A classical economist would assume the number would be the same - in each case people are being asked to put a value on the same object that they didn't previously own. But actually the group that was given the mug put a significantly higher price on it. It's called the endowment effect - the extra value that we attribute to things we own. That's why marketers offer us free trials and free samples; once we have something, we don't want to give it up. But it's not a rational way of valuing things. What if we're given a mug that we like less than another we would have chosen if we had a free choice?
Shifting from mugs to heritage, the same effect is in play. Dowdy old buildings are valued because they are familiar rather than because they are good. We want to create a new fake Clandon Park rather than secure the preservation of important buildings that actually survive. Pictures that happen to be in the country already are valued more highly than ones we don't regard as our own. We keep trying to 'save' things for the nation, rather than going out and buying better things elsewhere. I share the impulse to preserve, and I recongise its power as a marketing slogan, but it's not always the right message.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Changes for the worse at the British Museum

Head of a weeping bearded man; slightly to r, looking to front. c.1603 Pen and brown ink, with some grey-green wash in the background
Picture: British Museum
A couple of months ago I had a few days off work, so I popped along to the Print Room at the British Museum. I'd hoped to see their northern mannerist drawings, but as they weren't easily accessible I had a look at some early German drawings instead. They seem less intensively studied than the Italian drawings; there was quite a range of quality in groups of drawings attributed to the same artists. I don't know these draughtsmen well, and I've been missing out. The outstanding discovery for me was Hans Baldung Grien. I've long admired his paintings, and I knew of him as a revered draughtsmen, but nothing equals seeing the originals. The chalk study below is outstanding, but I'm cheating you by reproducing it. You really have to see the original to appreciate its artistry. My morning in the print room set me off with a renewed enthusiasm for early German art. I've been reading all I can find on the subject, and I'm hoping to make another trip to Germany to see more in the autumn. All from a chance encounter in the BM. 
Study of the heads of two men, both turned to l; the nearer being an old man with long beard, his eyes slightly lowered, the other a younger man Red chalk, over black chalk
Picture: British Museum
The British Museum's print room has been, I think, the most open in the world. You can just turn up with ID and ask to see just about anything. The only restricted items are the Jacopo Bellini album and the Dürer watercolours. Unlike many museums, I suspect they'd be open to considering requests to see those items too; in some places they won't even let you through the door without a letter of introduction signed by Leonardo himself. It really is a wonderful privilege to be able to turn up to the BM on spec and root around in the greatest collection of old master drawings in the world. For me it's one of the greatest pleasures of living in London. 

But no more. New rules restrict opening times, impose closure for the entire month of January and on every Monday and require an appointment to be made two weeks in advance specifying what you want to see. We all understand cost constraints and we know that difficult decisions must be made. But this is such a wrong decision. 

Every museum bleats the same tired rhetoric about access and inclusion. In practice it usually means 'experts' in museum studies dumbing down the wall text. In its quiet way, the BM print room actually exemplified inclusion. When I've been there there have often been tourists wandering in because they want to see Dürer's Rhinoceros or some other well-known highlight. Others come in with no clear idea of what they want to see. The staff have always been patient and always found them something to look at. People with little knowledge who can't even articulate clearly what they're looking for are treated equally with scholars and curators. These visitors won't book a fortnight in advance, and it's tragic that they will now be excluded. 'Access' is usually taken to mean reaching out to people who don't usually visit museums at all, but it ought also to be about provision for people along a spectrum of knowledge and interest, helping any visitor to see more and learn more. 

It's not just casual visitors who will suffer. What of people who might require more urgent access? Dealers and collectors, for example, who might want to consult something to compare with a drawing coming up for sale, or journalists researching for a tight deadline. Or just people who find themselves with an unexpected free morning in London. But some people will, I am sure, be able to get in at short notice. I can't imagine them refusing access to prominent dealers, visiting curators from other institutions, well-known journalists, or trustees and their friends (and friends of friends). Inevitably there will now be two-tiered access, reproducing a common bifurcation between provision for the masses and the elites. Established dealers will be able to turn up on spec; insurgents will have to wait until after the auction. Tenured academics who know the staff will get in; their students won't. 

You can't exaggerate the importance of the BM's collection of prints and drawings. There are fewer great comprehensive collections of drawings than of paintings; only the Louvre and the Albertina are really in the BM's league. The groups of drawings by the greatest renaissance masters is just phenomenal. And now that entire collection will be open for just four days a week, eleven months of the year, for a few hours a day from 10.30 to 4pm with an hour's break for lunch. Some of the greatest art in the world is now available for just eighteen hours a week, and that for only eleven months of the year. 

I don't doubt the sincerity of the curators who assure us that they want to preserve accessibility. I'm not sure how much the decision was driven by cost cutting and how much by bureaucratic diktat. But access is what has been lost. And that should be protested vehemently. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The stupid fetish of free admission, and the end of the British Museum

Picture: Wikipedia

Free admission to museums is quite nice, but it's not so terrible in places like, er, the whole of the rest of Europe, where you have to pay. And decades of free admission plus forced admonition hasn't done much to change visitor demographics. The main recent change is that foreign visitors make up a greater proportion of visitors to the UK's main attractions. So free admission is a subsidy to wealthy foreigners. Don't get me wrong; I don't begrudge it. Free admission is a fine thing. But the British government is now simultaneously cutting funding and mandating free admission. Something has to give. And the British Museum has just been broken.

The Art Newspaper has announced that the British Museum is renting 500 key object to Abu Dhabi for five years. That they're hawking some of the most important works isn't surprising; the customer wants the best. It's harder to explain why they're splitting up integral displays (sending off random Assyrian reliefs) and including particularly fragile objects. Is it pure spite at the BM's visitors? Do the borrowers want to show off that they can buy anything, no matter how unfit for transport? This should exercise pundits far more than the Parthenon Marbles, and it makes a mockery of the BM's claim that they can show the marbles best in a global context. Context means nothing when sections of a relief can be prised off their own walls to rent out abroad. Now the best they can say of their own custody is that they're the best rental agents.

This trend has crept up on the museum world, albeit making rather a splash when the Louvre struck its own deal with Abu Dhabi. I think its impact has been greatly underestimated. As more museums get in on it, rental fees will fall. More worrisome, so will standards. Rented exhibitions rarely have much pretense of scholarly or artistic value, being rarely more than a few 'highlights' brought together under a marketing slogan (my favourite: 'Tutakhamon, Caravaggio, Van Gogh'). Worse is that costs will be cut as competition intensifies. A recent show at the Pinacoteque de Paris had two guards covering dozens of spaces, one of whom protected the merchandise in the shop. Next they'll be sending exhibits by FedEx. 

Potential demand from newly-wealthy cities is immense. Once museums start, they can't stop. The National Galleries of Scotland have sent the best of their collection on two long money-making tours in recent years; now Glasgow is in on the act, too. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has its best things perpetually on the road. The greatest museums are destined to become lending libraries. But whereas Haskell and Penny envisaged them engaged in reciprocal altruism, each mounting their own special exhibitions, the reality today is more sordid. Works are rented out for drearily repetitious 'highlights' tours in the same cash-rich/art-poor cities, with the cash going to pay running costs for the owners.

To be fair, it's not altogether the fault of government funding. Museums are utterly complicit. They absolutely love this. They get attention. They get to negotiate big sexy deals like corporate titans pursuing M&A. Instead of simply looking after their treasures and showing them to the public, they get to broker them for cash and favours. Neil MacGregor should be taken out and shot. The trustees should be sued down to their last penny for dereliction of duty (indemnity insurance be damned!). Museums have spoken out against cuts and made the case for certain of their activities, but they haven't openly spoken out against paid loans. Nicholas Penny made representations behind closed doors against Glasgow's loan of the Burrell Collection; otherwise, nada. They do not present rentals as an unfortunate necessity; they try to spin it as a positive virtue.

The lying liars at the BM say they know they must 'strike a balance' between 'displaying objects around the world and having them available to study in Bloomsbury'. The snivelling scumbags don't propose to make half the collection available in, say, Africa. No, they will be available 'around the world' only if you happen to have a few gazillion quid to pay for the privilege. They're not being shown to the world; they're being hawked to one of the smallest and richest countries in the world. And what a snide choice of words, contrasting 'display' elsewhere with 'study' here, as if what takes place in Bloomsbury is arid and intellectual, whereas what takes place abroad is cool and populist. I really think they have nothing but contempt for their visitors.

The spin is so obvious and so thin that they can't even be trying. I don't think they imagine us to be idiots. I think they simply don't care what we think. They will imperiously go ahead and transform the BM from a museum to a hub of commercial activity and international diplomacy, to the greater glory of their director and trustees, and to the everlasting harm to their collections and loss to their visitors. 

Recent Reading (non-art)

I must warn about this book, as a public service, because it has been unworthily elevated by punditry and puffery. It contains precisely one point of interest: the observation that one postcode in London's trendy Shoreditch saw more new businesses launched last year than Birmingham, or than Newcastle and Manchester combined. That is indeed arresting, and arresting numbers should be interrogated. Were there really 16,000 new enterprises launched in that postcode? How many are shell companies or financial subsidiaries? Given the location, I bet a large number are simply contractors who register companies for tax reasons. They are still doing the same jobs, but now through companies they own that notionally employ them. Alas, none of these theses is considered here. The statistic is just a soundbite, which is true of the book as a whole - a transparent attempt to coin a phrase, as worked so well for Jim O'Neill when he first wrote of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

It gets worse. Despite the book's brevity, he can't help straying off-topic. At one point he muses about London's transport system, which he is an expert on because he travels in London. It is based solely on his impressions, ignoring the entire body of literature on urban transport. He seems to think the only problem with driving in London is bus lanes, ignoring the much bigger issue of parking in city centres. It's a bizarre interlude; space would have been better devoted to saying something relevant about his purported subject. 

The book tells us little about the digital economy, but we learn a lot about the wonderful author, who has come late to the humblebrag and deploys it crudely. He was at the centre of things when the City was deregulated, but he only had the one intimate meeting with Margaret Thatcher. He's not just an entrepreneur, but a successful entrepreneur. We're told lots about his consulultancy, but he'd sell it better if his book were a little more thoughtful and less boastful.

Picture: Amazon
Richard Bessel Violence: A Modern Obsession Simon & Schuster 2015 £20

By some measures, at least, we live in especially peaceable times. By historic standards inter-personal and inter-societal violence has fallen steadily and is especially low today. This book doesn't seek to enter the accounting debate, but it starts from the intriguing recognition that whatever the objective data show, we are especially obsessed by violence today, and especially repulsed by it.

Thematic chapters cover a range of themes from war to women and children. They're clearly written and sparkle with incident. I thought it suffered from the lack of a unifying vision, buy you may enjoy the detail and consider its kaleidoscopic quality more of an advantage. But at times I thought it verged on superficiality. The concluding chapter ranges widely, and I thought many of the general points needed development. For example, he speculates about the role of wealth in diminishing violence, because people have more to lose. But that's relative. After the Black Death people were relatively very well off - more than had previously been dreamed of - for generations. But there was no discernible critique of violence as a result. Perhaps a higher base was needed. But more plausible, in my view, is that growth is more important than wealth, because growth holds out the premise of a bigger pie to divide later. Rather than fighting over the spoils of war, we can come together to increase the spoils.

There's still much that's thought provoking here; Bessel has tapped a fascinating subject.

Recent lighter reading has included Tim Moore's cycling travelogues, French Revolutions in which he attempts the Tour de France without training, and Gironimo in which he attempts the hardest ever Italian giro - the 1914 - on an authentic period bike. Both tremendous fun; he has my sense of humour, and I'm insane enough to think both undertakings sound like brilliant ideas. Zia Haidar Rahmen's In the Light of What We Know was over-rated. I found it thin and pretentious. It's a novel that's always trying to teach you things, but it's not always right. Although the author briefly worked in finance, a lot of his details are wrong or unconvincing. He doesn't get context.

North Korea Confidential by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson is brilliant. As well informed as is possible on the subject, but also analytically intelligent, clearly written and brief. Fascinating on how such a screwed up society functions, and some of the emerging tensions as private enterprise flourishes on a small scale, and cell phones and western television become more widespread. Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head was a terrible disappointment. His previous book, Shop Class as Soulcraft is a modern classic, a truly brilliant book that I recommend to everyone. His follow-up is portentous and confused, just a commonplace and confused riff on 'enlightenment culture'.