Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Art of Being a Total Prat

Sometimes you read a blog and you agree with it. Other times you read a blog and agree with part of it and disagree with part of it and it sets you thinking. Reader, today I read a piece that I totally disagreed with. It's about the most scabby, nasty piece of blogging I have ever read.

Jonah Albert wrote a splendid piece in the Observer asking why so few Asian and Black Britons visit the National Gallery. It's a question that any seeing, sentient visitor can't help but ask themselves. It's a major gallery in a major multi-cultural city. So why is the audience so "hideously white", to borrow a phrase?

Oliver Kamm, disliked the piece so much that he called for the sacking of the author. Oliver Kamm is, and here's an ad hominem attack, a prat. We'll deal with Kamm's argument after we have looked at what Albert wrote that so offended Kamm.

Albert asks
Figures show that 43 per cent of the British population visited a gallery or museum last year, but I know from just working in a gallery that the percentage of those from ethnic minorities was in single figures.
An obvious culprit hides in the nature of the National Gallery's collection: Western European painting from 1200 to the turn of 19th century was the remit it was given when it was established in the early 19th century. Other institutions would collect and display Eastern and African Art; the National Gallery was set up to focus on old master paintings.

To the minds of those who choose not to engage with the place, it's little more than the work of some dead men - well, mainly dead white men.
Oliver Kamm believes this shows that Albert has no idea "what art is for" and Albert should therefore be relieved of his duties immediately. Kamm is wrong. Albert is working through reasons why people fom Britain's visible ethnic minorities do not visit major art galleries. When Albert discusses the universal message of some images
The paintings in the National Gallery deal with major life themes: love, loss, death, jealousy, betrayal, war, peace, power and many more ideas, all of which are just as relevant to black people as anyone else. But it's also significant that behind many of the portraits of white folk in their finery lurks the ghostly presence of an invisible black population.

Zoffany's painting of Mrs Oswald shows a lemon-lipped, bored-looking woman trussed in a furbelowed dress. Joshua Reynolds's image of Banastre Tarleton depicts a handsome, if somewhat camp and bouffant, soldier in full military dress. The buried story behind both Persil-white portraits tells of African enslavement, Caribbean plantations, slave factories on the West African coast, abolition and slave revolts in Florida. More history than you'd imagine on first glance.
This gets dismissed by Kamm as showing Albert's "incomprehension" of "what the arts are for". Kamm sees the "pedagogic power of art" lies in "broadening our experience and appreciation of enduring human concerns." Nowhere in Albert's piece does he argue against that. Nowhere does Albert say he disagrees with that position. Kamm has read into Albert's essay, or should that be read into the lacunae in Albert's essay, an argument against what Kamm sees as the purpose of art.

Kamm is arguing from the position "I think art is this and this is what it's for". This person does not mention my position therefore he must be agin it.

Kamm's reading is totally against the aims of Alberts essay which is about seeking reasons why people from visible ethnic minorities do not visit major art galleries and reasons why they should visit. Albert's essay offers some reasons why people, of all ethnicities, should visit.

Kamm argues
How can you be a curatorial fellow of one of the greatest art galleries in the world and say nothing about the enjoyment and elevation that art provides? How can you have any role connected with arts administration and not regard the love of art as a sufficient - or even a possible - reason for looking at paintings? In my view, you can't or at least shouldn't. If Jonah Albert is representative of the Arts Council's "Inspire" scheme, then the Council should put a stop to it with alacrity. (You can read more about the programme in this article from Time Out.) In any event, Mr Albert's article is more than reason enough for the Council and the National Gallery to dispense with his services.
Kamm misses the point of Albert's article, which is to get people to engage with art. If you are discussing people who have yet to engage with art then "a love of art" is not going to get those people into galleries. The "love of art" comes after engagement. To be trite, you can't have a "love of art" without looking at and engaging with art. Your initial reason for entering a gallery and looking at art is not going to be "love of art". How can it be so? You have no experience of art to fall in love with.

Kamm has every right to disagree with what Albert wrote. He has every right to disagree with what Albert did not write. But, for Kamm to call for the sacking of Albert based on ideas Kamm thought, wrongly, should have been in Albert's article is morally wrong and has all the hallmarks of a lynching.

Oliver Kamm's blog is a nasty, smug self-satisfied piece arguing, to paraphrase, "I know what art is and what art is for. This Albert chappy doesn't. Therefore sack him".

What a nasty, smug, vicious, scabby piece of blogging.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suck coz I only appear to be able to think of one joke and one joke alone...

Why did the plane crash into the house????