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.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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