Brave New World (The Star)
11 December 2013
There’s a lesson from a family who gave their art collection to the public to make sure it is well preserved.
I AM writing this in London.
This sounds a lot more glamorous than it is. Firstly, I am in Walthamstow Central, at the very end of the Victoria tube line and hardly Belgravia. Secondly I am crashing at my mate’s bedsit; warm, dry and most cosy, but hardly the Dorchester.
Finally, I am not here on my own steam. My paltry lecturer’s pay does not emit much steam.
I am only here because of work. I was in Belfast to attend and present a paper at a human rights workshop.
While I was there, a colleague at the workshop kindly offered to drive me around the city. He took me to areas which were very much divided by the Troubles. Areas most clearly defined as Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Unionist.
Despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought peace to an area beset by decades of violence, there still existed physical reminders of a troubled past.
Ugly walls made of brick and metal separated huge swathes of the city and up till today, public roads are closed by gates upon nightfall. But even in the sad divisions of this society, the expression of said divide was oft times expressed in beautiful murals.
Although there lies an underlying sadness when viewing these public works of art, celebrating and confirming as they do a sharp and violent societal cleavage, one can’t help but be taken aback by their artistry.
And there is also a glimmer of hope when one sees newer murals that embrace values such as human rights; murals that quite pointedly have replaced earlier works which conversely glorify and encourage sectarianism.
I am not in any way some sort of culture vulture. Being as uneducated as I am in the fine arts, I can out-philistine most anyone.
But being cultured is not a prerequisite to being moved by how art can so succinctly and poignantly reflect the human condition in all its glory and profanity. Or even to simply appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of people who create things of beauty.
In that sense, my trip has seen me most fortunate. After my Irish jaunt and my exposure to art as a political statement, I made a stop in London.
While I was wandering the streets parallel to that hell on earth known as Oxford Street, I found myself in a museum called the Wallace Collection.
In all honesty, the only reason I went in was because it said “Admission Free” and I had a couple of hours to kill.
Once inside, however, I was blown away by the whole thing.
First and foremost, the collection was at one time the private property of the Wallace family. They had bequeathed the whole thing to the state so that it can be enjoyed by the public.
“Collection” is a weird thing to call it though. A collection is how you may describe my humble stash of comic books.
The Wallace “collection”, on the other hand, includes works of art that ranged from the 15th to the 19th century and boasts paintings by Rembrandt, Bol, Hals, and Gainsborough amongst thousands of others.
Wandering through this huge, once private, residence, mind boggling at how one family could have found itself the possessor of such a diverse and copious assemblage of classics, I could not help but be amazed at the beauty that humans can create.
It was all so incredible that the experience was humbling. Not only because I was surrounded by such magnificence, but also because it was all so fragile.
I found it astounding that a family could be far-sighted enough to basically give all their treasures to the public and the state in turn to ensure that it is all well cared for and preserved.
It all brings to mind how careless some are with national and world treasures and it made me reconsider my view of myself.
Because perhaps being a philistine is not about being uneducated; instead I would say it is about being incapable of appreciating history and beauty when it is staring you in the eye.
In which case I am not a philistine, but I can think of many idiots who are.