Saturday, 13 June 2020


I sent this to the Guardian but they did not reply

Scandalous statues in Bristol and anywhere




The toppling in Bristol of the bronze statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and major benefactor (or should it be benefactor and major slave trader?) raises complex issues, and my own opinion has changed somewhat in the light of recent events.


My instinct as an art historian is not to approve of the destruction / vandalism of a work of art – though in truth the statue by John Cassidy of Manchester in does not rise above the competent. We obviously should not decide such an issue on the basis of its perceived quality of a work of art. BUT there is a memorial to Colston in the decommissioned church of All Saints in Bristol. It was designed by  the excellent architect James Gibbs (Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields etc.) with a funeral effigy by John Michael Rysbrack, as good a sculptor as there was in Britain at that time. With such an artistic pedigree, do we protect the memorial while not regretting (too much) the fall of Cassidy’s routine bronze? There’s also a fine swagger portrait of Colston by Jonnathan Richardson, previously in the Mayor’s office (present location withheld). Do we slash it with a sharp instrument?


There are long historical antecedents to acts of destruction. Our churches and collections of Mediaeval art bear vivid witness to the iconoclastic destruction of “papist” images. The issue of “graven” images runs as a centuries-old sore across the various Christian denominations. Such British pre-Reformation images as still survive are now likely to admired in historic venues and museums administred by non-Catholics.  We may also recall the dynamiting of the very giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. That was a World Heritage Site. There is a huge number of such events, which we are now likely to denounce.


I have tended to think that statues of people who incite our disapproval in whole or in part are an integral part of the historic fabric of a place, which cannot be productively re-modelled, and that it is best that they are seen to serve as memorials to values that we no longer espouse. However these matters are complicated and not readily subject to a simple formula.


Let us take as an example the vandalism in 2017 of statue of the pioneer gynaecologist, J. Marion Sims , and its subsequent removal from its pedestal on the edge of New York’s Central Park. It was taken to  the cemetery where Sims is buried. Sims’s “experiments’ on  black women are taken as outweighing his apparent virtues, as measured on today’s scales. But let’s look at Central Park itself, one of the signature assets of the Big Apple. To create it in 1857 about 16,000 people were involuntarily displaced, and schools, churches, a convent and residential village were destroyed. As we might suspect, the residents were mainly black.  Do we renounce Central Park? Do we return the sites to the descendants of the displaced? 


Many of our valued places, institutions and artworks were bankrolled by money that we would now regard us unclean, including not a few Oxbridge Colleges – and good number of Renaissance masterpieces.


My answer was that we should not hide the past and that it is better to know about it than deny it. Education, in this case, is the conventional answer. Now I am not so sure. 


The erecting a public monument is political-cum-social act. Removing it is a legitimate response to the original act.  I say “removal” very deliberately not destruction. The statues are mute but visually eloquent witnesses to our history and our deployment of art in the service of causes that we have (or should have) long since abandoned. Local solutions should be found as to where to re-locate them, ideally where they can serve an active cultural role. The empty plinths, like that in Trafalgar Square, can support major works by contemporary artists. Let’s build something new on the debris of what we now regard as shameful attitudes.


Two footnotes.

1. For 99% of the time no-one notices the statues, unless they portray someone very famous like Churchill. They are just part of the urban scenery.

2. It is interesting that a bronze effigies of largely forgotten, eldery white men can still be invested with such presence and meaning when the occasion arises.


For Central Park, see Sarah Waxman

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

spine operation

The operation on my spine, to make space for trapped neves, seemed to go well.  I was home the next morning, in good shape, apparently a miracle of Biblical proportions. But... and it is a big but, since that time I have experienced severe back pain, which means I can only just get around the house.  The wound is very clean, so no infection. It might be muscles spasms. I am in touch with the surgeon and we are working on the problem. Very disappointing.

In my next blog, I will talk about the destruction of 'racist' statues, but don't have ooomph to do it now.

Monday, 1 June 2020

I go into hospital for my 'spinal decompression' surgery tomorrow. Operated though a keyhole. I hope to be operational again in reasonably short order. We will see... More afterwards.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Dante book and no blog

No recent blogs. Sorry.
I have been writing intensively. "Visions of Heaven. Dante and Divine light in Art".
I am giving priority to finishing the chapters before I have an operation on my back on 2nd June. Spinal stenosis has crunched my mobility. I hope my ability to get about will be restored to a workable degree.
I am more than half way through the last full chapter. Watch this space (if you want to) once the chapter is in draft.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Covid glossary

A Challenge -  something we have failed at
"The Science" - which of the varied opinions, theories, analyses is most useful politically
Open / Transparent -  anything we can't keep hidden
Ending the Lockdown - planning based on guesswork
Promises - obsolete statements
Flattening the curve - why there is another peak
Press Conference - an opportunity to parade well-rehearsed words that add up to nothing
Media Interview -  ditto
Leadership (BJ) - making a lot of blustering noise that adds up to nothing
Brexit - we are leaving, or not
Care Homes - highly profitable enterprises
Ethnic Minorities -  a group of people against whom we once discriminated and still will when all this is over
Those at risk - those who can be sacrificed.

(Contributions welcomed)

Saturday, 25 April 2020

acronyms and arrogance

During current crisis we are assailed with acronyms. To give one example, an intensive care unit becomes an ICU. Oh yes, we also have PPE.
This is part of a broader and pernicious trend.  I still take Nature on a regular basis, having written a column for a number of years. At one time I could understand about one third of the content, could see what is going on in another third and could not grapple with the other third. Now, the great majority of the articles are closed book to me. Synopses are dominated by acronyms to which I do not have access and the articles themselves by torrents of data translated into graphs of a kind I can't handle.
Given my forthcoming (when?) back operation I have had to learn that CSF = cerebrospinal fluid. If it leaks, I am in trouble.
What is the purpose of acronyms? To economise, but not to a really significant degree. Their main purpose is make the user sound knowledgeable, like an insider and a professional. They are an affectation. They also carry a kind of high-tech air like all the acronyms that plague computer-speak.  How many know what a URL stands for? We may know what it does. But it stands for 'Uniform Source Locator', which is as incomprehensible to me as the acronym. 

I am the founder and sole member (to date) of SAAC. This is the Society for the Abolition of ACronyms. Yes, I know it's not a proper acronym, but that applies to many (most?) these days. There are also many organisations for which bizarre names have been concocted because they provide a good acronym.  

This is loosing battle - like most of mine - but I'm not giving up. 

Sunday, 19 April 2020

virus, science, and more on the scrapheap

'We follow the science'. That or something like it has been the politicians' mantra. But there is no such thing as "the science". There are well-informed. clever people who pursue research, ranging from specialist modellers of probabilities and possibilities to  racing researchers set on the holy grail of a vaccine. We hear that vaccines are not far away. We hear that a vaccine is never going to do the job against this 'clever' virus.  We hear that we will be out of the wood (according to various timescales) or that we will have to live (and die) with the virus for the foreseeable future. We are told that people with antibodies are safe. We hear that we do not know whether we can acquire immunity from a second infection.  With a such a new and unpredictable virus, there are huge uncertainties.  Translating these uncertainties into policies is the politicians' job. When they get things wrong they get the blame (unless their name is Trump). But the scientists should also share the blame. They appear on the media (flattered and self-important) to make ex-cathedra pronouncements based on their particular skill-sets. "The evidence tell us...". Evidence only tells us something there is a theory and/or a set of assumptions. I am concentrating on what is actually happening, listening to the news and hearing the main scientific pronouncements, but the rest seems to me to be media noise. Hooray for Radio 3. Science is hugely powerful and very necessary, but "science' tells us many things. Which of these things do we "follow"? There will be huge winners and losers in this game of scientific snakes-and-ladders.

A footnote on the Sumption survival of the fittest thesis.
State what seems to be unassailable premise: ‘old people are more likely to die that younger ones’. What flows from this,  by a series of steps which have the air of logic, is that if everybody cannot be treated, the old should not be.
But the initial premise has tacit assumptions / biases in it. The ‘old’ are singled out, not infants, pregnant mothers, the disabled, those on social care, those in care homes, those with severe mental problems… The only outcome of the premise is that the old should be left to die.
If I start from the ethical premise that everyone has the same right to a further year (on other unit of time) of life and be given assistance to achieve that goal (unless the quality of life is such as to bring this into question), the outcome is utterly different. At the end of the year, the same equation kicks in. The old will of course on average die more quickly than younger people , but a caring society should not pursue remorseless  if tacit policy to cleanse of society of old people.
Of course, I am biased in this. My birth certificate tells me that I am "old". I would like to think this is fake news, but it seems to be true.