Awkward Around Art

There is a picture in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where I live, called The Annunciation. I keep a postcard of it in my writing room, and visit the actual painting from time to time. A winged and haloed angel Gabriel, holding white lilies and pointing up to the heavens, kneels before the Virgin Mary, also haloed, her arms crossed on her breast, her head slightly bent to receive his earth-shattering message. They are in a kind of reception room. Mary stands behind pillars, Gabriel kneels in front of pillars opposite. Between them at the centre of the picture two more pillars guard an open doorway to a garden path that leads to a wooden door that seems to go out into the outside world. The floor tiles inside and outer wall around the door are terracotta and echo Gabriel’s swathed robe and the dress of the Madonna. Mary wears her blue cloak, and Gabriel a tunic of the same colour. The walls of the reception room are a pale blue grey, and beyond the outside wall, just a little of the cerulean blue sky can be seen. It’s a painting about so many things and it can be looked at repeatedly. The occasion is momentous, of course, and at a great distance from ordinary human life, although, as the 15th century understood it, it was also the announcement that was going to change humanity forever. It’s a painting that speaks of distance in every kind of way. Gabriel and Mary are far apart in the room and in a formal relation to each other. At this early Renaissance moment, the artist, Domenico Veneziano, is revelling in his immaculate grasp of perspective, of depicting the distances between the figures and the spaces in the room, with its ten upright columns, the rectangular tiling on the floor, the space from the doorway through to the garden and the door out into the world. And there is the metaphysical distance of course between the angel and the woman. The picture is pale, calm, orderly and beautiful in its proportions and its philosophical implication of a world about to be saved. It isn’t the world of workers and peasants that Bruegel painted a hundred years later, it is the formal announcement that there will be harmony and balance in the world. It is, I have no doubt, art.

I am awkward around art. Not at all confident about how I should look and what I should feel. I stand both pleased and helpless in front of this painting and look, think about what I’m looking at, and wonder about it, in as much as I can, because I’m not an art historian. Often, standing in front of paintings I wonder what it is I am supposed to be feeling beyond the looking and thinking. Artists I have known talk about ‘just responding’ to a picture. But I’m never sure what just responding is. I worry about it. It is only in writing the above paragraph for this article that I’ve managed to figure out what exactly it is I like and might ‘feel’ about the Veneziano.

But does it matter? Does art matter? Would it matter if I’d never seen it? Imagine how many thousands of fine paintings I haven’t seen. What is it I lose in not knowing or seeing paintings and sculpture? Certainly, there is a great difference between the postcard I have and the painting in the Fitzwilliam (the colours are not quite right, and it gives no indication of how small the painting actually is). There are many pictures I only know from books or postcard reproductions. Van Gogh paintings in real life are jewels of which the reproductions are mere outlines in shadow.

Does art matter to a society, then? It always goes without saying that it does. And all of those involved with the humanities, teaching, making, curating, or just enjoying art of various kinds, will insist on the necessity of art to human society. But the truth is that most of the world, most of the time, doesn’t confront great art. Great art has always been for the few. For popes and monarchs in their palaces, for those free to get to wealthy and nationally-supported metropolitan museums. Most people know the popular dopplegangers of great art, and the cliché about ‘knowing nothing about art, but knowing what I like’ is understood to be a populist response to the elitism of the fine art world.

Then there’s the matter of popular taste. Tea towels with Vincent’s Sunflowers, Jack Vettriano’s hugely-selling, sentimental paintings, the orientalist Chinese Green Lady by Tretchikoff that hung on the walls of a millions homes in the 1950s, including mine. Are these good for the soul and society? Or does taste need to be good, and does good taste come to a special few with an ‘eye’, or from education and on high to be trickled down to the masses for their benefit. I don’t know the answers to any of this. The only thing I’m sure of is that I would, if I owned it, sell the Veneziano painting like a shot if I or anyone were hungry or sick and had no other way to eat or receive medical attention. But that’s an extreme case. I certainly wouldn’t offer my treasure to the present government so that they can clear the national debt, no matter how much I’m told it’s the right thing to do. And yet if it would clear the real suffering being caused by the government’s methods of clearing of the debt, I would sell it.


In 1956, Anthony Crosland published a book called The Future of Socialism. Crosland had been a minister in the post-war Labour government, more to the right than the left of the Labour Party. In the book, he wrote of the necessity of the welfare state and added that in a ‘good society’:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.

Austerity Britain was a grim place. In spite of the post-war debt, and the rationing that still continued, here was a politician saying that what was needed, as well as a nationally financed system of health care and protection against poverty, was attention to art, design, and the architecture of public venues for eating and meeting, and that it was the job of a socialist government to provide and encourage these things.

It’s been a long time since anyone, even the Labour Party, used the word ‘socialist’ in anything other than a derogatory sense. The present government, in the name of getting the public debt down, have made cuts in everything Crosland suggested made up the good society and the Labour oppostion have pretty much acceeded to what they claim to be ‘the necessity’. We know what is happening to our beloved welfare system, but what about the arts? The present government has made it clear that only ‘science’ and ‘technology’ offer the ‘value for money’ they insist will resolve the UK’s problems. Government funding for the humanities in universities have been cut by 30% and it’s expected that they will receive no funding at all in the longer term. The Arts Council has also had it’s allocation of money cut by 30%. This means that in some places, such as Somerset, local councils in receipt of Arts Council grants have cut their arts funding by 100%, because their other grants for everyday living have been cut too. Not only that, but the previous Chairman, Liz Forgan, a former BBC pro-arts executive, has been sacked before her term is up essentially for being too elitest, and Peter Bazalgette has been put in her place. Bazalgette was the head of the production company, Endemol, which brought Big Brother, the money spinning reality show, to British screens. Clearly, he is there to ensure the arts does it bit in providing popular works that will bring in money. These days there are people who openly state that if something is popular, it must be good, and they are assisted in an essential way by those who claim that ‘great art’ and anything not immediately graspable is elitist. As I say, I really don’t know what happens to human beings when the arts are turned into fast-gratification, money-making projects. Something tells me that it matters. I have a sense of terrible loss as the taking down of departments of literature, philosophy and fine art in universities, at the closure of local libraries and the selling of museum and art gallery treasures to make up the lost government funding. I am prepared to accept that I am elitist. I like and admire work that makes the reader or viewer work. I know at any rate, I want the best in the arts of all kinds, not the best-selling. And as Gertrude Stein said: ‘Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly what they are not’.


Published in Swedish in Goteborg-Posten September 2012

An Apology to Twitter and blog readers.

Somewhere, in some book or other, I really can’t remember * which, I wrote the sentence ‘Everything passes, but nothing entirely goes away.’ Or possibly ‘Everything passes, but nothing entirely disappears.’ It had a context. I imagine it was to do with the nature of personal history, trauma or pleasure, either. It referred casually to psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious. And also commented on the banality of the ‘everything passes’ cliché. It wasn’t a sentence on its own. No sentence ought to be. I’ve been writing a daily #todaysrandomreading on Twitter recently, but the point is that it is random, and not intended to offer meaning or wisdom. I’m an aficionado of pointlessness.

Now, I keep seeing it quoted on Twitter and in blogs, in various languages, as if it belonged in the Big Book of Deathless Truths. Everything passes, but that sentence doesn’t entirely go away. I am deeply embarrassed for myself whenever I see it. While I’m pretty sure I thought about it as I wrote it in, as I say, context, it’s a cloud of airy nothing put out there on its own. Like a scrap of a torn shirt carefully washed and hung out to dry, to be clean and useless. I hate homilies.

My apologies to those who come across it. If this seems ungrateful to appreciative readers, my guess is that most quoters haven’t read the book it came from, and I’m not a grateful person. Thank you.

* Google Books finds it in _Only Human_:
Thanks to Dan Visel @dbvisel

The Rabbi’s Wife

I was born in central London two years after the Second World War. My parents were first-generation British Jews, brought up in London’s East End by their immigrant parents who had escaped from the Eastern European pogroms in the early years of the twentieth century.  Since my birth in 1947, no one has ever said to me ‘You would all be dead. Your mother, your forefathers, would all be fucking gassed,’ as clothes designer John Galliano said recently to a woman in a bar in Paris. Nor has anyone ever called me, as Mel Gibson once called the Jewish Winona Ryder, ‘an oven-dodger’.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century rampant anti-semitism seems to be having a fashionable moment. The continuously exploding Charlie Sheen chose to rename his producer, Chuck Lorre (né Charles Levine), Chaim Levine, to make some sort of point, and called his manager a ‘stooped Jewish pig’. The troubled and troubling Julian Assange allegedly called up the editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, to explain that there was a Jewish media conspiracy against him in England, and is known to be friendly with the mysterious Israel Shamir (aka Jöran Jermas) who as well as believing in a Jewish media cabal, says that the Jews plan to take over the world after securing Jerusalem, and that the holocaust was nothing like as bad as the Jews claim it to have been.

Aside from celebrity abuse, there seems to be a general rise in anti-semitic speech and behaviour, partly because Jews, where ever they are from and whatever their views, are equated with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and partly because generalised anti-Jewish feeling, here in the UK as everywhere else, has always been popular and has never gone away.

Like most things in the country of my birth the expression of anti-semitism is a matter of class. What would be thought of as outright racism, such as the British National Party’s wish to repatriate the Jews along with non-white immigrants and their children to…someplace or other, is largely a working class or lower-middle class phenomenon. The more middle and upper class version of anti-semitism would not be regarded, by those classes at least, as racism. It is simply an in-group assumption, a matter for amusement and mutual agreement, and a poor show exhibiting a lack of a sense of humour if you call it by a nasty name.

My parents met with the working-class kind of anti-semitism in the 1930’s when Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts marched through the Jewish areas of the East End. I, as I say, have never personally experienced overt anti-semitism, if you don’t count the group of boys at school who regularly lay in wait for me to sneer ‘Here comes the Rabbi’s wife’ when I was twelve, and not getting into Grey Coats School, after passing the 11 +, because their Jewish quota was filled. But the other, classier, sort of anti-semitism has been part of my experience for as long as I can remember. Being Jewish, growing up and living in post-war England, has always made me feel something other than precisely English. Don’t get me wrong, not feeling entirely at home in the country of my birth is no bad thing. I actually value my lifelong sense of alienation, although to most people from other countries, I would seem to be as English as the English come.

My first dramatic encounter with my own Jewishness in the eyes of others was at my primary school, where at the age of 8 or 9 (not long after the facts of the holocaust had been made public) I was asked by a group of my peers in the playground where I was from. I was surprised. I’m English, I said. No you’re not, you’re Jewish, they told me, and added that I had killed Jesus. We sang about Jesus every morning in assembly – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – and I wasn’t unimpressed that I might have been responsible for such an important person’s death, though I had no recollection of the deed. What I was, or had been, sure of, was that I was English. I had a birth certificate that said so. That’s what I told the children in the playground. But when I stopped to think about it, I’d always known that something didn’t fit about us. We never exactly belonged to that tightly strung class system that depended on how you how you spoke, who you knew, what you ate, what you wore and how you furnished your house. I couldn’t place myself so easily or precisely as I could place my non-Jewish acquaintances, because although we were hardly religious Jews, and spoke English as our mother tongue, though smattered with Yiddish words and phrases, we did so much of daily existence so differently that we never slotted into a proper, recognized sector of the social structure.

When my mother and I walked around in the central London streets, people actually stopped us on several occasions to ask if we were Italian. London was so homogenous a place in the early 1950’s that to look ‘mediterranean’ was something strangers took an interest in. They were quite friendly, but nevertheless, the word ‘cosmopolitan’ was used about our features, a word that often encoded for Jewish in newspapers, books and public discourse. We ate food that derived from Eastern Europe, used words that came from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents, and, although we ate bacon with relish, considered chicken soup an inalienable human right. (Hadley Freeman, in The Guardian greeted the news that Galliano had gone into rehab after the Jewish incident with the baffled question: ‘how does antisemitic rehab work? Is he force-fed matzo-ball soup? Made to watch Annie Hall on loop? Taught the ways of hypochondria? Gosh, sounds kinda like my childhood.’)

Since then, every now and again, I am reminded that I am still a stranger in a strange land. At a middle-class dinner table (my own, actually) I have listened to an hilarious recounting, by people with long English heritages, of attending a Jewish wedding, and the awful clothes, the bling, the raucous voices and excessive bad taste they had to put up with. The sister and brother-in-law of my best friend came directly from Sunday lunch at a restaurant and regaled us with a description of ‘the Jews’ at the next table who wore so much gold jewellery that they clanked as they scoffed food too fast and shrieked at each other about how much money they’d made that week. Surprisingly often, on social occasions, I have had apparently regular, intelligent people explain to me that ‘the Jews’ run the media and prevent various kinds of truth being told; and once I was told by a painter that good reviews of art by non-Jewish painters were excluded from publication by Jewish editors and newspaper owners. All these things are said with the assumption that they were only confirming what the rest of the company already know. The one Jew in their midst – that would be me – was either not known to be Jewish, or it was assumed that I am ‘sophisticated’ enough to find the crudeness and greed of Jews as true, funny and distasteful as the rest of the world.

My reaction is always to feel excruciating embarrassment. This is part of my Englishness, I suppose, but the embarrassment is for them, for their public revelation about themselves, their  coarseness, and for what they are going to feel when they realise, or remember, that one of the party is Jewish and not laughing. Sometimes, wearily, I point my semitic profile in their direction to give them a clue. They occasionally get it, change the subject, hastily leave the room, or a silence falls which I feel it is my duty as a social being to fill with a new topic of conversation. Sometimes though there’s a strong sense that, yes, of course we know you’re Jewish, but, come on, you know what we mean, and where’s your irony? In this, being Jewish is quite like being a woman and expected to laugh at sexism. My irony, in such circumstances, does seem to have gone missing, and it’s true that making jokes about Jews is one of the pleasures of being with other Jews.

But I find myself in a double difficulty. I am against antisemitism and racism in general, but I am also against the idea of Zionism and dismayed by its consequences. More than that, I positively relish the Jewish diaspora. The great thing about the Jews is the fact that they are dotted about all over the world, participating in every other culture, while also sharing and holding on to a changing culture of their own. I find this infinitely preferable to nationalism. I have no sense at all that Israel has anything to do with me. I see no justification for demanding a national homeland that was and is already inhabited by others, based on a fictional narrative written by various hands thousands of years ago. In particular I deplore the Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians and its use of the holocaust as a rationale for displacing and persecuting people. This position is regarded by pro-Israeli Jews as worse than lacking a sense of humour. So I find myself, with many other Jewish people who have expressed these views, on the online Jewish S.H.I.T. LIST (where SHIT stands for ‘Self-Hating and/or Israel-Threatening’). It’s quite strange, but perhaps again bracing for my positive sense of non-belonging, to be both an anti-semite to some Jews and to disappoint some Gentiles by my stubbornness in  refusing to get the anti-semitic joke.

First published in the Goteborg-Posten in November 2011