Monday, 25 February 2013

Modern Elgins?

Not quite. Yet the enduring elements are the dispossession of ordinary people who do not actually own what is in their midst and the justification in which wealthy appropriators seem compelled to find public solace:

... important works in the street art scene and deserved buyers "whose first interest is in art and its preservation".

Street scene inadequately preserved
A mural by Banksy has been stealthily removed from its original location on the outer wall of a Poundshop in a poor area of north London and turned up for auction (along with another such mysterious apparition) in Florida, amid much protest from the non-collecting regions of the art world in Britain and from the streets of Wood Green.   The justification by preservation, long advanced by the British Museum and establishment in respect of Lord Elgin's removal of the Acropolis marbles, is much employed by the possessing classes in the era of democracy, when public claims to possession if not ownership have to be given some recognition. Perhaps it will be seen to be less necessary as we come increasingly to accept the hollowness of democracy and the escalating polarisation of wealth. It is a justification not restricted to art and cultural artefacts. It is notably and explicitly applied to the ownership of land, and implicitly applied to most things in the functioning economy. The poor are of course congenitally unable to enjoy (these protests must be whipped up by left-wing agitators), let alone create or preserve, the finer things of life. Some decades ago it was well kown in this country that if you gave the poor baths they would only keep coal in them. The poor, who, like the rich, are always with us, would these days be mostly expected to possess a bath but would probably be unable to afford the coal to put in it, or its modern equivalent in heating fuel.   Back to the mural: the current owner, or claiming owner is unknown and neither he or she, nor the auctioneer is telling. I expect the shop would deny having sold it for a quid and it is in any case only the tenant of the building. Suspicion, warranted or not, probably falls more on the investment company that owns it. It is probably not Banksy himself. The temptation is the estimate (by the auction house of course) that it could fetch almost half a million pounds - but before getting too excited one should bear in mind that when five Banksies were offered at auction in New York in 2011 none found a buyer.

Banksy himself is keeping quiet - mystery and anonymity being part of his succsessful public persona - but it is thought likely he would disapprove of an act so in conflict with his general social message. To me it is all part of the mystery of how some succesful modern artists make their money. It is clear how Damien Hirst does it, but who pays for Anthony Gormley to populate the remote crags of the Alps with thousands of casts of his own body? No doubt I am just showing my ignorance of the ways of wealth and culture. I console myself with the news that Denis Mahon. spectacularly successful art collector and heir to the Guinness Mahon banking fortune, has left his paintings (now worth many millions but none of them bought, in their art-unfashionable past, for more than £2000) to be distributed among a number of public museums and galleries in the UK on the conditions that the receiving collections are always freely open to the public and that they do not sell off any part of their holdings.

Art lovers
Maybe I am just hopelessly stuck in the past and we are moving from the old, drab, welfare state democracy to a new golden age where fabulously wealthy individuals commission magnificent works of art on public display - not so much new Elgins as new Borgias. In that case both Banksy and his furtive appropriators would be rather against the grain.

For undisclosed reasons, but we are told nothing to do with any doubts about title, the Banksy has now been withdrawn from sale. Parallel difficulties have afflicted the attempt of a London local council to sell off a now fabulously valuable Henry Moore sculpture which he donated for permanent public display in a poor area of London - although it has not been in its intended location for many years. No doubt it is thought to be vulnerable to vandalism, if not theft and the prohibitive cost or impossibility of insuring it is cited as a reason for disposing of it - as well as the need to pay for more basic public services as the government steadily reduces its financial support for local government. I believe the intened sale is held up not just by protests as by the difficulty of deciding who actually owns it after decades of local government reorganisations (or 'reforms' as modern politicians would like to call them) have dissolved the original recipient of the work.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Eggs for all

McDonald's has been upgrading some of its burger bars with an infusion of high design. Some of the more metropolitan locations have been equiped with, amongst other items, Egg Chairs, designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1950s. Jacobsen contracted the manufacturing rights to Fritz Hansen, but in England, though not continental Europe, legal protection for the design has expired, as it here runs for only 25 rather than 70 years.

So it is possible to buy 'imitation' Egg Chairs for around £300, whilst the genuine article from Hansen costs about ten times as much. That at least is how it appears to the individual enquirer searching the internet, but reports suggest that Hansen have received 'nearly $2million' for 2500 chairs sold to McDonald's - which works out at $800 a chair.

Never mind the maths. McDonald's, it transpires, has been using the genuine Hansen chairs in its more prominent locations but also imitations in the UK. When Hansen got to know they took offence and declared they would sell no more of their chairs to McDonald's: indeed their CEO declared "we discovered that terrible copies of our furniture were also being used in the U.K. That is unacceptable. We simply will not work with people who use originals where they have to and copies elsewhere, legal or otherwise."

McDonald's respond that they have made their commercial, financial and marketing calculations and will not budge. They also say they explained their intentions to Hansen in advance. They go on to explain that they nowhere suggest to anyone that the 'imitations' are genuine Hnasen-Jacobsens. "No attempt has been made to 'pass off' reproduction chairs as originals in any references or labeling."

Not good enough, respond Hansen. Some of 'their' chairs are right alongside the 'imitations' and the differences are only visible to someone who knows what they're looking for. On the other hand they describe them as "terrible copies". Design purity, it appears is a capsule that, if suitably insulated, can be inserted into any environment. To paraphrase the excellent Hilary Mantel, I am far too snobbish ever to have entered a McDonald's, but I imagine artificial eggs are not the greatest affront to good taste to be encountered there. Apparently the full extent of Hansen's modifications to the purity of Jacobsen's original design was that they 'developed' chairs with 'special colours'.

The refits have been going on for several years and maybe misunderstandings or forgettings have crept in. The designer (of the fit-out of course, not of the chairs), as ever caught between the rock of his client's budget and the hard place of the supplier's prices, hopes for a happy resolution that will enable his project to sail on. A little cultural chauvinism slips in here (the designer, Philippe Avanzi is French): "The concept was to be authentic, and McDonald's was in perfect agreement with that," he says. "I don't feel betrayed, but poorly misunderstood by a few people in England who didn't understand the importance of staying authentic. This was something extremely clumsy, which the English are going to have to rectify. And they will." Or maybe not.

This tale of the interaction of commerce and design under the mantle of aesthetic morality seems typical of the world of design.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Done and seen to be done

Yesterday was a bad day for criminal justice procedures, and not just in South Africa. Here in this country a prominent trial of the ex-wife of an ex-cabinet minister who has already been convicted of perverting the course of justice by getting his then wife to accept responsibility for a speeding fine he had in fact incurred himself has had to be abandonned and a retrial ordered.

After many hours of fruitless deliberation the jury sent the judge a list of ten questions which the learned judge found extraordinary and unprecedented, and revealing "absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding" of their role in the legal process.

The jury has been dismissed under a cloud, seemingly labelled as both irresponsible and stupid.

Not everyone thinks all of the questions were stupid, although perhaps those that were not should have been asked earlier, but there seems little sympathy with the request that the judge define 'beyond reasonable doubt', which, as we all know, is the corner-stone of our criminal justice system. No-one should be convicted unless it has been proved that they are guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

It is reported that the judge responded that the words were in normal usage, which is perhaps all he could say, but he, unwisely in my opinion, although I belive he was merely complying with the current standard of legal procedure, went on to say it simply meant they had to be 'sure' of their conclusion. What is 'sure' in the mind of the average person?

To me the concept of 'beyond reasonable doubt' seems something of a fraud, or at least a fudge. It is patently clear that many people are convicted, and their convictions upheld by learned judges (not jurors at that stage) at appeal, when many 'reasonable' people doubt their guilt. I think it is even right to say that judges themselves may disagree.

Indeed, to have a system, as we do, and as was intended to operate in this case, when a jury verdict of guilty can be accepted with a minority of dissenting jury members, seems to me to be fundamentally incompatible with the idea that conviction depends on proving guilt 'beyond reasonable doubt' - or else alarmingly incompatible with the conventional value ascribed to jurors.

Yet our legal process is a philosophical and historical patchwork rather than something bound to clear and over-riding principle. In part juries might seem to have a residual god-like role: they are not required to have legal knowledge and until recently profesional lawyers were formally excluded; they are not required to give reasons for, or to justify, their decisions, although of course their decisions are open to later legal challenge, now on both sides, and it is even possible now for someone, in certain circumstances, to be tried twice for the same offence; their deliberations must still remain secret. In earlier centuries juries were in fact painfully aware that they were usurping God's role of judgement. Vengence is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay. They feared they might themselves attract God's vengence for judging their fellows, especially if they convicted their fellow men. Many still believed literally in an impending, and far more serious, day of judgement. Trial by jury replaced earlier, more 'primitive', forms of trial - trial by ordeal for example - which were at the time seen as mechanisms by which the judgement of God, rather than that of man, was revealed. The reluctance of juries to exercise judgement and to convict their fellows, their peers, was the reason for the later introduction of the injunction that they should convict if persuaded of the defendant's guilt 'beyond reasonable doubt'. It was intended to make conviction easier, not to constrain it and was a further step away from the religious notion of justice. The popular value now placed in the nostrum is in conflict both with historical development and with current jurisprudal thinking, but that is not to say that it has any logical or linguistic clarity.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Do you hear me now?

Go ahead, make my day
"I did not take steps to stop the CIA's use of those techniques. I was not in the chain of command of that programme ... I was aware of the programme. I was CC'd in on some of those documents, but I had no oversight of it. I wasn't involved in its creation."

"It's the idea of giving any president unfettered power to kill an American without checks and balances that's so troubling. Every American has the right to know when their government believes it's allowed to kill them." Senator Ron Wyden

Brennan said drones are only used as "a last resort to save lives" but agreed that "we need to optimise transparency while at the same time optimising secrecy" over the killings.