Thursday, June 03, 2004

Tate debate

Claire is my culture-vulture friend and recent flatmate. I don’t use the term 'culture-vulture' in it’s usual ‘look, the two words rhyme! How cute!’ sense, I literally mean a vulture of the cultural morass that is most people’s social calendar.

She swoops down on the twitching remains of one’s empty weeknight and lifts it in the air, soaring on a headwind of British Museum gallery talks and Proms in the park, bypassing the fetid gully that is most popular entertainment to deposit you in a nest lined with Thackeray, Austen and Wilde novels where she proceeds to gorge herself on your free time. Other than that, she’s a really nice person.

Claire is so much a social hub over here that she has her own monthly digest of things ‘to do’ out and about in London. She forces us all to be a little more cultured, occasionally at the point of something sharp - like her wit.

Reading through one of these digests a little while ago, I came across the Tate Britain’s Pre Raphaelite exhibition and thought it looked promising.

Curious about the whole era and wanting to learn as much as possible before attending, I clicked on the link that was the Teacher’s Pack in the hope of finding something pertinent.
It amazes me that the following suggestion for a school activity can be recommended by Tate:

“Create a campaign (e.g. Posters, adverts, slogans) to prevent a high rise block being built in an empty space. Show how such a building would transform the appearance of the area.” (Page 5)
I suppose I should be used to such ideas from the Tate galleries for whom the Tate Modern is a fetid jewel in the crown. The Tate Modern (for those who have been spared a visit) is a monolithic building full of horrors and monstrosities, colorful abortions framed on a wall or dumped in a corner with the label ‘art’ affixed like a toe tag to help identify the corpse. Such wretched refuse should never see the light of day however is peddled to an unsuspecting public as the best of what our generation can offer.

No, the above student activity suggestion amazes me because a government gallery is allowed to put forth such blatant instructions to turn students into future militant anti-development protesters.

It also amazes me because the context seems so incorrect. Pre Raphaelite painters in England were enthralled by the Victorian era’s industrialization, they were able to travel great distances by train in order to capture corners of nature that had not been painted before and they were in a world that was building, progressing, and questioning everything – even religion - at a dizzying speed.

Shacks were torn down in order to make way for factories, fields were tilled by machines rather than bent, broken men with oxen. Towns and villages, shops and department stores, hospitals and roads were appearing – people had the choice to work in a factory for wages that they would never have dreamed of in their primitive village. It was a great time to be alive – no matter what any selectively-educated, anti-industrialist hippy tells you today.

These painters understood that they were in the midst of swirls of change – slow, geological, seasonal change and rapid change fueled by humans. Their response to this was not to cry out against the changes but to capture moments in time in the minutest detail through art. They knew that there was no use in trying to stop change – they celebrated the present by immortalizing it on canvas.

England is already stultified by the past. Council and ‘heritage’ regulations abound to the point where hedgerows (shrubbery) have their own parliamentary bills.

The streets lined with the old working-class row houses are ugly. The fact that councils restrict changes to facades to express individuality is criminal encroachment to an individual’s right to augment or dispose of his private property. Councils want beehives, not individual property rights whilst the government is teaching the children to protest against putting up new, economical, profitable high rise.

A couple of days ago, I spent some time on the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf in London. I was amazed at the pace of construction and the beauty of the developed side of the island. Clean, wide, well-lit streets. Breathtaking glass-clad towers. Apartments that still had that wonderful air of newness about them.

The Victorian-era buildings and wharves, the very docks that would have brought the pre-Raphaelite painters the curiosities of the world are being torn down in another wave of change. I sincerely hope that our skyscrapers, in their turn, will be torn down should something better an more beautiful be able to take their place.

We have a choice, therefore. We can learn from the wisdom of the painters and take images of the scenes that we love in the full knowledge that time or man will change them someday – or we can chain ourselves to the quicksand that is the present and waste all our energy trying to stop it from moving.

I know which I prefer.

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