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8 February 2023

The idiot rich are taking over our cities – and our culture

Why the Supreme Court's decision on the Tate Modern is bad news for London. Plus: Lydia Tár, audiobooks, and rowdy composers.

By Andrew Marr

Is “the idiot rich” an offensive phrase? It seems an appropriate one following the decision that those living in ugly glass-fronted apartments opposite Tate Modern’s viewing gallery can get it effectively closed so the great unwashed can’t peer at them.

Perhaps it isn’t the tenants, inevitably trying to maximise their privacy and asset values, we should be most cross with, however, but the Supreme Court for deciding that their right not to be looked at trumps that of ordinary folk to see a grand view of London. This is a ruling with huge and dangerous implications for urban life, as more and more luxury flats are built around the country.

Essentially, the very rich are acting as parasites on urban attractions that often became so over centuries: the river embankments, the tight and ancient clusters of shopping streets, the public galleries and parks. They want to be near them, able to swan out and enjoy them, observe them from balconies, boast of their proximity – but at the same time to keep the smell, hubbub and other eyes staring back, safely far away.

Well, it’s not on. Tension between the fortresses of the wealthy and the streets around them is as old as the story of urban life itself. Think of the towers of  San Gimignano or the bleakly hostile outside walls of the palazzos in Florence. But modern building materials mean that luxury apartments for the super-rich now spring up so high and so fast they threaten the living environment of the very soil they sprout from. It’s happening around Central Park in New York, all over London and in most of the great Asian cities, too.

Greedy developers and absentee millionaires are thieving the sunlight and views of the rest in the interest of literally looking down on us. If you want to live in a busy urban space with culture, many cuisines, historic spaces and the rest of it, then great – but then you must put up with the noise, the crowding, the jostling and the looking. If I were running Tate Modern I’d commission a show dedicated to that.

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[See also: Museums like the Wellcome Collection miss the middle ground in the culture wars]

Art and the artist

Has any major film caused as much of a stir in the classical music world as Cate Blanchett’s Tár? I thought it was too long and rather bleakly coloured – all greys and cold blues – but utterly fantastic. It isn’t really about music, but about power in the #MeToo period and how the same interactions appear utterly differently to different people.

Blanchett’s fictitious Lydia Tár is a world-famous conductor based at the Berlin Philharmonic who was mentored by Leonard Bernstein. She’s also a lesbian accused of sexual misconduct. Marin Alsop, a real-life star conductor who is a lesbian herself and was mentored by Bernstein, and has never been accused of anything, called the film offensive. “There are so many men… this film could have been based on,” she said, “but instead it puts a woman in the role but gives her all the attributes of those men. That feels anti-woman.”

I thought it was more sophisticated than that.  For someone of my generation, Lydia emerges as a hero in a piece that explores the brutal demands high art imposes on the individual. Great artists are great –  but rarely nice and almost never easy. See it.

[See also: Tár review: a crafty, cryptic take on art and morality in the online age]

Reading allowed

Is it better to listen or to read? An old question that much concerned the monasteries but which has never been more relevant as we devour audiobooks. Listening can, I suppose, feel a bit regressive, as if there is again a parent at the end of the bed. A poorly read audiobook, however strong the text, is intolerable. But a well-read one can, I’d suggest, be better than the page. I am a lover of Joyce and have never enjoyed Dubliners half as much as in the version read by the actor Andrew Scott, whose feel for the rhythms and subtle hesitations of the prose brings it alive in a way I never discovered when it was sitting in my hands. Similar suggestions much appreciated.

The men behind the music

One barrier to enjoying musicians of the past can be that, thanks to stiff, unsmiling portraits of starchy-looking ancestors, often we don’t really get a sense of the hot, living people behind the music. I was thinking of this while listening to the King’s Singers and the viol band Fretwork performing William Byrd and his contemporary Thomas Weelkes at the Wigmore Hall. Weelkes’s music may sound stately,  at times pious, but his behaviour would make Amy Winehouse seem a model of moderation. He was sacked as organist at Chichester Cathedral for drunken behaviour. Though later reinstated, he never sobered up, arriving in church from the alehouse and swearing “most dreadfully” while in the choir. He was often admonished, but he never reformed – and his music is glorious.

[See also: The rise and fall of the British music press]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak