Changing the Conversation
"Portrait of a Young Man", 1530s, by Bronzino: Art that would stop traffic
At a particularly conservative dinner a few years back someone suggested we play the game of "trying to think of anything that has got better recently". A deep silence prevailed until someone came up with "the lighting on buildings in London at night". Everyone had to grant that one. You cannot deny that the facades of Westminster Abbey and the Natural History Museum look vastly better now than they did a few decades ago.
But such deep pessimism is catching, and ever since that silence I have tried to make a conscious effort to collect indisputably good news stories and pass them on. I came across one recently and tell it here because almost nothing has given me so much hope in years.
It is a choir called Inner Voices. Set up by the head of music at the West London Free School, it includes children from a number of inner-city state schools. The children are from every imaginable ethnic background and many receive free school meals. The concert I went to was conducted by the former head of music at Eton College and the choir of about 40 sang a programme of Byrd, Allegri, Parry and others which culminated in the spirituals from Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time. I never manage to sit through a performance of the last spiritual, "Deep River", without my eyes feeling damp.
But there was absolutely no chance when Inner Voices sang it on a wonderful spring evening at a central London church. Because of the number of family members present there was standing room only. In microcosm it was exactly what would give hope for the future. These children all wanted to sing and were getting access to the best choral culture possible. It is worth keeping an eye out for future performances, as it is enough to give hope to even the gloomiest pessimist.
I came across an interesting inversion of this only a few days later. There is a wonderful BBC World Service programme I occasionally do which requires me to get up at 5am and then do a couple of hours of live broadcasting. It is always filled with a range of items worth getting up for. One item on the latest show was about a US scheme aimed at bringing art to a wider audience. The intention is to get works of art on posters at bus shelters and railway stations as well as billboards in Times Square and other landmarks. In one way it is a terrific idea. But then one is struck by the inevitable mundanity of the art under consideration in this "access" project. The focus aims to be on "American art" while apparently precluding art in American collections.
I would have voted for a huge version of Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man from New York's Metropolitan Museum, which would stop traffic on an LA highway. But current plans include huge blow-ups of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can. Surely this is the worst dead-end imaginable — an advertisement turned into a "work of art" which then gets put on an advertising billboard. This isn't giving people access to great art. It is giving them access to great advertising. An artist we interviewed was hoping to display a photograph of the back of his head. Why? People can see the backs of other people's heads all the time, almost as often as they can see Warhols. Why can't we alter the conversation on art from "But is it art?" to simply "Is it any good?" And then try to guide people to the good stuff?
The month in which Martin McGuinness was invited to a white-tie dinner at Windsor Castle and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited from receiving an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University provided an excellent reminder of two important lessons. The first is on aspiration. There are some people who spend their lives trying to join "the establishment". There probably never was much point in this. But there is particularly no point if the establishment in question contains Mr McGuinness.
The outrageous treatment of Hirsi Ali by a "liberal" university serves to remind us of another modern truth. Which is that telling the truth has become an "illiberal" activity, especially the kind of uncomfortable and necessary truths that Hirsi Ali bravely tells. Some people were surprised at Brandeis's behaviour. I was not. Places like Brandeis — set up by Jews when there was still a quota on Jews at other US universities — are the last places on earth likely to stand up for liberal values today. They understand — and care to understand — nothing of the times we are in. There is an obesity, a clogged moral arteries-ness at such institutions. Truth clears them out, but it takes a long time. You are more likely to find genuine liberal values by plucking people at random from the street than by scouring the halls of any "liberal" institution.