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What the strikes at the National Gallery tell us about Britain

The National Gallery is a kind of visual phrasebook articulating awkward truths about our civic life.

 

At one point in Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 film National Gallery, accountants lecture the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, about the need to squash budgets and reach new audiences. Perhaps they could project logos on to the side of the building? Cuts are being imposed by the government, they explain, though savings have been made through changes to staffing arrangements.

In making the film, Wiseman operated according to strict rules: he asked no questions, constructed no situations and offered no verbal commentary. Yet he made some telling choices in the editing suite. Straight after the meeting scene, the film cuts to J M W Turner’s Fighting Temeraire – an image of a gunship that had supported Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, being towed towards its final berth to be broken up in 1838.

This was the year when the gallery moved to its current site in Trafalgar Square, though it was officially founded in 1824 when the government bought 38 pictures that belonged to the banker and Caribbean plantation owner John Julius Angerstein. At another point in Wiseman’s film, an earnest freelance lecturer tells children that the gallery has long been associated with exploitation. As Jonathan Conlin explains in The Nation’s Mantelpiece (2006), his history of the institution, it was founded to celebrate military victory, boost “manufactures” and establish a connoisseurial canon.

It seems unlikely that Wiseman is a James Bond fan, but Skyfall, which came out while he was filming in 2012, shows how closely entwined the painting, the gallery and empire have become. Bond sits before the Temeraire, reflecting on his bruised body and the geopolitical irrelevance of the country he continues to injure it for.

Towards the end of National Gallery, the camera lingers on the writer Robert Hewison at a Turner exhibition. Presumably he was gestating Cultural Capital, his account of the managerialisation of the arts in Britain, which warns: “Without a firm commitment to culture as a common good, the public realm will continue to be divided and fragmented by privatising interests that work on the principle of competition, not co-operation.”

The book came out in 2014, just as one of those gallery meetings approved a proposal to outsource 400 assistants to a private company in the name of “modernisation”. Fearing worsening conditions, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) called a strike over Christmas, followed by another one this month, with a rally to be held on Thursday 26 February at 1pm. In the process, one of the union’s senior representatives, Candy Udwin, was suspended, reportedly for inquiring about the cost of an already-contracted private company.

It would be naive to pretend that this gallery was ever a bastion of equality but, as the Temeraire makes clear, it has served as a visual phrasebook for articulating how we see our national life for nearly two centuries.

National Gallery barely registers the assistants directing visitors around with the art-history equivalent of a London cabbie’s Knowledge. But in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2012), a woman called Anne flies in to Vienna from the US to be at a relative’s bedside, only to find herself stranded. She keeps returning to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, partly to keep warm. A gallery attendant helps her – he is Johann, an ex-roadie. They become friends, talking first about Bruegel and then themselves. What these films share is their measurement of the peculiar time and space that exists in galleries, cutting between painted faces and living ones, each considered worthy of the same care.

Image: JMW Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (1839). Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage