"The present book is in part about Dante Alighieri’s understanding of light [based on Mediaeval optics] and the legacy of his Paradiso. This involves both the direct sense of the considerable impact of his extraordinary vision, and also the general diffusion of his literary portrayal of the extra-terrestrial realm of spiritual light. But it is also a paragone study in what poetry can do and what painting can do. We will see Dante and the painters mutually striving to meet one of the greatest of all visual challenges. That challenge was how to describe extremities of divine light that were beyond the scope of our earth-bound sense of sight."
Monday, 13 July 2020
Why three or four years at this point in someone's life? There is no good basis for this "rule". If there is one single lesson I learnt over the course of my many years in the education world, it is that people develop at very different rates and ways, and have very diverse forms of intelligence and skill. Our current system cannot handle this diversity and fails most 16 to 18-year-olds to greater of lesser degrees.
My suggestion is that we think of scrapping the current assumptions about further education.
At school leaving age (itself open to revision), each student would be given a set number of further education credits (perhaps equivalent to a 3-year course) that they could take up at any point in their lives. Each credit would be "spent" on a course in a particular area of activity, ranging from carpentry to chemistry. This might be taken immediately following school, or after some kind of work experience. Subsequent credits could be taken in a continuous batch of studies over the same kind of period as now (above all for people of an academic inclination, who might move on to post-credit, "graduate" work), or at any time and after any interval of years. Someone might, for instance, gain some work experience in the law or in the building trade immediately on leaving school, and decide that they need to to upgrade their formal qualifications (ideally in collaboration with an employer). Or they might decide to study something different, having gained some experience and a broader perspective. Or they might study for 2 years, leaving for employment, with the equivalent of one year's credits still available for future use. Someone else might want to change direction at any point in their life, either radically or re-tooling in their present area of activity to master new directions which were not apparent during their initial training. The requirement of jobs are not static in the present age of rapid technological and other changes. Someone who missed out on schooling, not having engaged with study, would have the opportunity to re-engage and gain valuable credits. None would be cast on the rubbish heap at 16 or later. Practical intelligence would be given as much chance to flower as academic intelligence.
No-one would be obliged to take up their credits. Someone who went straight into employment may achieve what they desire without further formal study. Someone who retires with, say, a year's credits still available might seek a fulfilling direction in the many years that will remain for many retirees.
Higher education providers would need to re-think what they teach, how they attract students and the relationships of the qualifications to the worlds of employment. Students would be able assess the trajectory of their lives from a broader perspective. Schools would need to think about what diverse students need to launch themselves on worthwhile lives. Less exams and more actual teaching.
This flexible system might seem like a recipe for chaos in not knowing how many are going to be studying what. But the Open University has taught us that such numbers are forecastable on statistical basis. The system would settle down quite quickly.
The finance dimension needs thinking through. It may be that the equivalent of a year's study is met automatically by the state. Subsequently, courses could be financed by a cocktail of official and private support, the latter involving employers and perhaps direct loans. It may be that employers would contribute to a central pot of funds for later qualifications and re-tooling courses.
I have been the beneficiary of the present system. It suited a clever state-school boy of the 1950s and 1960s. There are increasingly few that it really suits over the full course of their lives. Let's seriously ask, "why three or four years in a row?'.
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.
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
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
Friday, 22 May 2020
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
"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.
Saturday, 25 April 2020
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
A footnote on the Sumption survival of the fittest thesis.
Sunday, 12 April 2020
They have been pleasant, helpful and professional. They are essential members of our community and are at risk in the frontline.
And yet we read of the Home Office refusing to fast-track or register qualified practitioners and willing workers who do not fit with their hostile immigration rules. An organisation like the Home Office can be collectively racist even if the individual members are not. The net effect of procedures and criteria, with each person / department protecting their own backs, in the face of their political masters and tabloid press, is racist.
This is a time when we can all show our friendship and gratitude to who have chosen to join and participate in our community.
Thursday, 9 April 2020
A few years ago I wrote a bit of formatted prose on a neighbour whom I could see in the lane from the window of my study on the first floor. It was printed in the booklet of his funeral service. It has a new resonance for me, now that mobility is a challenge not an assumption.
Monday, 6 April 2020
Maybe that is also right overall.
Sunday, 5 April 2020
It seems to me that there is a bizarre kind of privilege in experiencing the current crisis, amongst the biggest to afflict humankind - much to the appreciation of other organisms that are now thriving without the plague of our civilisation. My garden is seething with nature.
We read of other great cataclysms as historical events, sanitised by distance and by knowing what was to come. This now is the real thing; we are an integral part of it and we have little sense of what is to come, individually and collectively. This will leave a great mark on history, not least because of governments' reaction and the rules they have imposed. What that mark will be seen to be involves such huge unknowns that I cannot really achieve the mental embrace that would make comprehensive sense of it now and what is coming.
We have it bad, but as a historian, there is a perspective, In the 'Black Death', which ravaged Europe from 1346 onwards, Florence lost 60% of its population. We have the most vivid eyewitness account by the great author, Giovanni Boccaccio. It is contained in his Decameron, in which a privileged group of seven young women and three young men and fled to isolation in a villa outside Florence. They exchanged stories. In current circumstances, Boccaccio's scene setting does not make pleasant reading. But it does put things into dreadful perspective:
"In the year of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health, and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise, it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous--both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady neither medical knowledge nor the power of medicines was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague, was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched. It is wonderful, what I am going to mention; and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect and even kill that creature in a short space of time. One instance of this kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man just dead had been thrown into the street. Two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.
Thursday, 2 April 2020
At one time, I had over 3000 following my blog. Now it is just in double figures. Perhaps the title of this one will give it a boost.
I had been sitting on the news that the Louvre had published a book on the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, which made a very fleeting appearance in their bookshop before being hastily withdrawn. The book by Vincent Delieuvin included new technical analysis, and was intended to be ready when the Paris exhibition opened. As we know the painting was not in the show. The odd rogue copy escaped - and compounds the Louvre's embarrassment about a national museum 'promoting' an artwork in private hands. Their book essentially validates what Margaret Dalivalle, Robert Simon and I wrote in our book for Oxford University Press, which the press have essentially buried for some unknown reason. Throughout they made a big mess of the book, particularly visually. Maybe our complaints account for their lack of interest in it. For me, never again with OUP. The press are outsourcing much of the editorial and production stages of books to disastrous effect.
See the accurate story about the SM in the 'Art Newspaper'
I had been keeping the story for the Oxford and Edinburgh literary festivals (I am banned from Hay, apparently). But we know what has happened to the festivals, sadly.
The ownership is assumed to be Saudi Arabian - but I have seen no hard evidence to that effect.
Since this is an art-historical blog, I will say a bit about the book I am currently writing (for an as-yet unknown publisher). A this stage, It is called "Let there be Light". Dante and the art of Divine Radiance, for the 700th anniversary in 2021 of the poet's death. A rather long formal outline follows! I have chapter 2 in draft, specifically on Dante's optics and the failure of his sight. This chapter is getting its first scrutiny by the exceptional young scholar of Italian literature, Maria Pavlova of Warwick University, who provided crucial support for the Mona Lisa book.
(Is there, I wonder, a chance of someone pinching the idea? If someone can do it properly according to my [undisclosed] deadline, they are welcome to try.
Tuesday, 31 March 2020
1) The great global semi-monopolies - Amazon, Google etc - will emerge even more dominantly, consolidating their hold on markets and fortifying their unaccountability to local political regimes.
What to is stop the mega-companies merging to form huge controlling entities resembling the state of affairs in Orwell's 1984. The difference is that Orwell's mega-entities were the product of conventional politics, power and wars. He did not, unsurprisingly, see that the totalising would be achieved through the electronic society.
2) The mega-companies will drag along political regimes and governments by their coat tails. The exception might be China, which will act as if one of the mega-companies.
3) That so many people are resorting to buying things online (by necessity) is going to feed the mega-companies, while the more modest local business will already be out of business or seriously crippled. I do not see this as being reversed.
4) One obvious positive is that employers and employees may find great advantages working from home - scrap the rush hour, enhance family life etc. etc. My view is that an employer should pay somebody on the worth of the job done, not on the basis of being in the office 9-5.
4) The draconian powers being introduced to control the citizenry suite those who aim to stifle dissent and unapproved behaviour on a longer-term basis.
5) The arts will be more than ever necessary in the face of the totalisation for their assertion of human values and interaction.
6) People will forget.
Saturday, 28 March 2020
I listen to the Today programme. My companion is then Radio 3, which has adequate if compact bulletins, and I tend to look at BBC News online at some point later in the day. The remainder of the time I get on with this and that, above all research and writing. The number of emails, which I thought would decrease after the Leonardo year, has steadily climbed, as have phone calls and occasional video calls. With social distancing, the social media (which I generally dislike) have a role in fostering a kind of social nearness.
Should I be scared? Probably. I am in an 'at risk' group because of my age, if not my general fitness. In 1989 In had bacterial meningitis and was totally paralysed with searing pain. That was truly awful. But the pain recedes into the past and seems like it happened to someone else.
The death of someone who was a very close friend alters things. Numbers are one thing. Names are another. She was middle-aged (seemed younger) and exuded a life force. She is one of those that we cannot believe has died. But she did so after only 6 hours in hospital. Terrible.
Anyway, I will check the online BBC news.
Friday, 27 March 2020
One positive is that animals of all kinds seem to be thriving given the withdrawal of humankind from their habitats. A greater range of birds in my garden, including little darting coal tits twitching with electric energy. And a pheasant, at one point joined by two companions. These are the clever pheasants, as far as they can be clever at all. Having watched the slaughter of their companions in Blenheim Park, they decide 'let's scarper', and become semi-urbanised. The birds are bred in fortified enclosures like Russian gulags or concentration camps - wooden huts surrounded by fences of stern metal wire. To protect them from predators. There is an irony here.
One autumn I wrote one of my bits of formatted prose. I do not know enough or have enough skill to write proper poems. I offer this one, without expectations. At least he last line might remind us that slaughters other than viral persist to shame of all of us. Think of Syria.
Wednesday, 25 March 2020
What is different is the nature of the day that lies ahead. I have in the past spent a fair percentage of time'in isolation' (writing etc.), but that was not the norm and it was my choice. I bath and dress 'properly', keeping up appearances, which seems to be a matter of morale, oddly. I shave every 2 or 3 days - my grey growth means that the 9 o'clock shadow no longer appears. Just spikiness. I am planning some more some video communications with family and friends, and would prefer not to look a negligent mess - but that also applies to audio phone calls; odd.
I do have a support structure, the people I call 'team Kemp', who all have equal value to each other and to me, including Steph, who does housekeeping - at more than the recognised distance and on the grounds that she is helping to care for a cussed 'old' b***** in an at risk category. In the team she is of course what used to be called a 'sweeper' in football. (There's more gruesome puns where that came from.) Remember Franz Beckenbauer. Judd, my long-term PA is key mid-fielder, organising the shape of the team and linking defence to attack. Caroline, my agent is a powerful striker, driving lucrative (I hope) contracts into the financial goals. Johnnie, my accountant in St. Andrews, keeps goal with uncanny agility as the tax-person strives the net the maximum score.
(Ed. this metaphor is becoming strained).
Tania is encouraging me to put the blog on some part of the social media. I boycott most of them because of their exploitative nature, esp, Facebook, on which I have been stalked!! Let's see. Numbers are not the issue for me.
Tuesday, 24 March 2020
For anything substantial. The day sort of went - somewhere. It did signal the contrasts of of where we are. There is the personal, the bits and pieces of getting by, the routine, either daily or qualitatively. The morning occupied by assembling an exercise machine, the sort of thing that comes in bits as a matter of routine rather than necessity, Accompanied by a booklet of exploded diagrams of parts with highly specialised names - a jigger double left-handed gromet etc - with laconic instructions, which my daughter when young inadvertently called 'destructions'. Anyway, it was assembled in due course, sitting on the terrace in the garden, and will serve to keep up my exercise levels at a time when I can't go to the gym and cannot do much walking because of severe back and sciatic pains.
The other dimension is the big implications of the plague. My instinct is that we might be heading for the abyss. So many business shut down. So many jobs lost. So many free-lancers with their livings abruptly severed. Such huge government debts in almost every country. How can the precarious, ramshackle edifice of universal capitalism survive under its present assumptions and 'rules'? The system has long been at a state of criticality, as interlocked technologies are poised (in an unrecognised way) to collapse through the weight of their own interdependent complexities.
That's all. not good but it should get better.
Monday, 23 March 2020
2 days in a row with my blog, maybe a record.
What of the plague?
Whatever happens, two of the last public events I attended were a fitting end (before eventual resumption?). On 11th, the opening of the National Gall show of Titian's late mythologies for Phillip II. Great tragedies of women in extremis, realised in blazing paint. Maybe they involved some voyeurism - Titian wrote to his patron promising to show nudes from back and front - but the intense and complex human dramas disarms the kind of formulaic viewing that too often passes as analysis. The other was a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, courtesy of my close friend Tania Correia, which recreated a massive Beethoven concert from 1808, conducted with punchy elegance by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Again a heroic assertion of the human spirit - though Pierre-Laurent Aimard played the Fourth Piano Concero more as we might imagine Liszt would have done than Beethoven with his Walter piano forte. If his piano had been assaulted as heavily as Aimard's modern titan, I suspect it would have gone the same way as Hendrix's guitar.
At some point I will write about the plague and what it 'means' - or will be seen as meaning. But not mentally geared up for that.
To a large degree I am less afflicted than many. My schedule of talks is gone - cancellation of visits to Florida, Venice, Stuttgart and Beijing. But since I work out of home, my daily routine is less disrupted than most people’s. I’m writing a book on Dante and divine light in art (for Dante’s 700th next year), which I can do largely from home since the Dante texts are all online. The visuals will be radiant. Though Dante is difficult. Also planning a big Hockney show for Cambridge in summer 2021. There are of course piles of unread books.
The problem is not one of boredom or lack of things to do. It is of variety. The same rooms, the same views, the same kind of cerebral and visual activities. Lively contact with people is vital for my morale. As a keen player of sport (previously) and avid listener to Radio Five, I really miss the games and contests. I admire great skills of the word-painting commentators, from whom I have learnt a lot.
Masters of the modern ekphrasis. They are my friends. I don't have a television.
Not in my stride yet, but bear with me....
Sunday, 22 March 2020
This is now too late in the day to do anything substantial. My intention is to look at some of the big issues that are looming up in the present crisis and to tell of slighter, more local and personal things.
I have long been intending to blog on current events but have never done so on a timely basis. A case in point is the suicide of Caroline Flack, the tv presenter. The press concentrated on the role of social media and the abuse received by people in the public eye. The bigger point was largely missed; that is to say the skewed value system that parades the sexual merits of improbably fine bodies housing minds that are encouraged to be sparklingly superficial. Programmes such as 'Love Island' exploit the participants, the public and the presenters through the glossy mechanisms of false celebrity. The tenor of the whole enterprise is of 'false nudes', in which size and shape of tits is of more importance than humane values of emotional empathy. However, that is now past - old news with no learnt lessons. But there's plenty to come. Some I hope cheerful and postive.