Tower Hamlets cashes in on Henry Moore, art world up in arms

If the looming sale of Draped Seated Woman proves anything, it's that we can't have it all.

In an impassioned open letter in Sunday’s Observer, “Britain’s cultural elite” implored the Tower Hamlets Council to abandon their plans to sell the monumental Henry Moore sculpture Draped Seated Woman. Amongst the dignified signatories were Mary Moore, Henry’s daughter, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, Danny Boyle, film director and Olympic opening ceremony auteur, and acclaimed artist Jeremy Deller.

The nature of the sale is complicated by the council's own purchase of the work back in 1962, when Moore sold the sculpture to the council at a fraction of the price it would have earned at auction. The reason? Moore wanted his work to have a life outside the private collections. He sold it to the council with the understanding it would be displayed publicly, enriching the lives of those in a socially deprived section of London. The sculpture sat on the Stifford housing estate in Stepney Green until 1997 when, following the demolishing of the estate and an act of vandalism, it was loaned for its own protection to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Now, the cash-strapped council faces hefty budget cuts to the tune of £90m over the next four years. Profits from the sale of this valuable asset – an estimated £20m - would be a helpful cash injection for the borough’s draining funds. Moore, Serota and Boyle, however, say the move “goes against the spirit of Henry Moore’s original sale” and the artist's “demonstration of the postwar belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to work of art of the highest quality.”

Many others have backed that position over the weekend as plans for the sale seem set to proceed. Rowan Moore argued, also in the Observer, that the act would set a dangerous precedent, devaluing the role of art within a community. “Taken to its extreme,” he writes, “it could be used to cut off all cultural funding whatsoever. The Whitechapel Gallery could be sold to Tesco, to raise money for deserving causes, houses could be built on parks and various council-funded embellishments to the streets of the borough should never have happened.”

So, a beautiful piece of art bequeathed by one of Britain’s most valued sculptors and active socialists is being sold in the imploding wake of austerity cuts and public apathy towards the arts. It’s a juicy, red meat issue leaking strong opinions. Does the public, for whom this work was indented, no longer give a bloody blister about art? Are the “cultural elite” a bunch of toffs for presuming they know what’s better for a community than their own council? Has money grubbing trumped social idyll once again? It all makes for much hair pulling, indecisive see-sawing. Quick assumptions and even quicker conclusions are terrifyingly tempting. But is it really fair to generalize on behalf of large groups of people, be it “the cultural elite” or the “deprived” of Tower Hamlets? Shouldn’t we just ask the two sides to speak for themselves?

Luckily for us, the BBC have already done that – to a degree. The results are still polarizing. In a video report last month, Alice Bhandukravi spoke to Tower Hamlets councillor Shahed Ali, who said:

“We’re not selling the piece out of choice. It’s just that it’s uninsurable. Obviously the piece is very much valued, and we’d love to keep it in the borough if we felt it was a sustainable option. Unfortunately, that’s very hard to do.”

Local councillor Peter Golds countered, with indignation:

“Well I suppose we could sell the Tower of London, which is also within the borough. There would be all sorts of people who would pay a great deal of money... but nobody would suggest anything as crazy as that. Culture is part of our history.”

Bhandukravi puts the question to several passersby. Based on this rather microscopic survey (of the three people interviewed, two were in favor of the sell, one against) we can (very) loosely speculate that perhaps two-thirds of the boroughs inhabitants would be in favor of “putting the money to better use”.

New Local Government director Simon Parker puts is bluntly:

“I think Tower Hamlets is in a really tough position. Finding a Henry Moore is like finding £20 million quid down the back of the sofa. You’ve got to decide, do we want it to enhance the public realm, or do we want to use that money to get kids into jobs, to support urban regeneration?” 

Twenty million pounds! That is, indeed, a lot of money. The strange reality is that £20m, an astronomical sum, is really but a small fraction of the council’s yearly budget. A quick look through Tower Hamlets’ annual spending report (made public on their website) reveals that £20m (already a generous estimate, others put the sale price at closer to £5m) is a mere 1/15th of the yearly school budget, 1/9th of the amount spent annually on benefits, and a quarter of the yearly social housing bill. It’s not even enough to cover a year's worth of waste removal – which rumbles in at over £30m annually. The sale looks more a band-aid than a long-term solution. Not surprising, then, when Nicholas Serota equates the move to “selling the family silver”.

Perhaps it was Draped Seated Woman’s sabbatical in Yorkshire that led to her undoing. Fifteen years of listless efforts to reinstate the work in the borough - amidst talk of insurance costs and fears of scrap metal theft - is sufficiently long enough for a generation to grow up without it, for its meaning to erode, its shape to disappear from common memory. Fifteen years on, and she's begun to resemble an out-moded antique in the back of the wardrobe, prime for the pawn shop.

Again, the fast conclusions are tempting. It’s easy to say that no one cares about art any more. Not the government, not the council, not the public. Surely the vandalism which led to the sculpture’s relocation fifteen years ago is proof enough that no one really loved the draped woman. Then again, if a thousand walk by and admire her, there’s little physical evidence left behind. The opinion of the one with the spray-can speaks the loudest. Seems unfair, then, to condemn an entire social enterprise on the basis of defacement alone. 

So, fast conclusions aside, the nagging sorrow is that the borough must even have to choose in the first place. Great art in the public sphere, urban regeneration, jobs for kids - can’t we have it all? Of course we can’t. The grim reality is that art, as always, falls into the realm of the frivolous. It becomes the expendable. So it’s out with Moore’s lovely little utopian dreams - in times of practicality, there simply isn’t space.

Does the debate end there? Do we accept these dismal terms and resign? Probably not. But even as a former resident of Tower Hamlets, I feel genuinely unqualified to judge what the borough needs most. What I can say, though, is that great art brings with it great dignity. Works of beauty and significance have the power to instil within a place a sense of value, and to make its residents proud. However, good schools, new jobs, and social support can bring equal dignity to a community. The question is whether the draped woman will achieve greater dignity in her original stage, or remoulded as a blank cheque.

Confliction abounds. Perhaps history will repeat itself in the form of a philanthropic collector who purchases the piece, only to donate it back to the Hamlet. Perhaps the council will pursue one of the many suggested sites for safe relocation (Queen Mary University and The Museum of London have both offered). Perhaps we’ll see the “Henry Moore Library” opened up in Stepney next year on the sale’s proceeds. Perhaps we’ll only see the rubbish being taken out more efficiently. The only guarantee is that we won’t have it all. It’s a real shame.


(Draped Steated Woman at it's site on the Stifford estate, Stepney c.1962. PHOTO: The Henry Moore Foundation)

Henry Moore's "Draped Seated Woman" was moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park fifteen years ago. (PHOTO: Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.