Civilisation

In search of gravitas

Gravitas, the heavy tread of moral earnestness, becomes a bore if it is not accompanied by the light step of intelligence.   (Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, Ch. 4) In 1969, the same year that a NASA programme named after a Classical Greek god put man on the moon, the BBC broadcast a series of programmes under the…

Budapest (Ludovic Lepeltier, Wikicommons)

The Budapest Observatory

  There’s has been a great increase in cultural policy data, research and commentary in recent years, reflecting culture’s greater importance in the postmodern world, and facilitated by the ease of modern communications. Twenty years ago, fact checking (to say nothing of library research) was slow and laborious. Now, you can break off in the middle of a sentence…

Jeremy Brett (Sherlock Holmes)

A Three Pipe Problem (MCV8)

‘What are you going to do, then?’ I asked. ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’ Arthur Conan Doyle (1891) The term ‘cultural value’ appeared in British policy discourse about 10 years ago, notably in Capturing Cultural Value, a…

Mary Beard 1

Cui bloody bono?

The speech of women There is a paradox, acknowledged by the speaker herself, in a woman giving a lecture about how the female voice has been excluded from public discourse since the origins of Western culture. Mary Beard’s lecture, given at the British Museum for the London Review of Books and broadcast on BBC4, was…

Parthenon

Well-worn touchstones

As you approach the Acropolis Museum in Athens you see the Parthenon’s reflection floating in the dark glass wall of its topmost level. It’s an optical trick worthy of the ancient temple builders themselves, bringing the most celebrated monument of European culture from its hill into the city, from the past into modernity, from worship…

British Museum Vikings Exhibition 2014

A small boat on a dark sea

Text of a talk for the Greek EU Presidency conference, “Heritage First! Towards a common approach for a sustainable Europe” • ‘Two gross of broken statues’ In August this year, Europeans will mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, a conflict that, depending on your view of history, could be said to…

Emperor's new clothes

Naked emperors

‘I want to change, but not if it means changing,’ a patient once said to me in complete innocence. This insight from psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz came to mind as I listened to some of the discussion at and around the latest ‘State of the Art’ event. He goes on to explain that, since change means…

Seville Cathedral

Artists did this

At Seville Cathedral today,  my breath was taken away by the power of a building designed, made and decorated by artists. I walked around just gaping at the unfathomable display of craft, inventiveness and beauty. In the past, when church and king held sway, it must have been been almost impossible to enter this building…

Saul Steinberg

It’s the end of the world as we know it

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the arts (and culture) being in crisis. There will be much more, next week, when delegates gather for a big double conference in York and Bristol, generously funded by the British Council, Arts Council England and others. I imagine hand-wringing, soul searching, frustration and anger,…

The Producers 2

Whose will? Whose Triumph?

State funding of culture is a very tricky thing to do in a democracy. Patrons, sponsors, customers  just buy what they want. But in the post-war European welfare state, managers in state departments or arm’s length bodies were tasked – for the first time – with buying art on behalf of other people. A binary transaction…