Saturday, 22 November 2008

The National Gallery, the Duke, his Titian and its lovers

The latest furore in the British art world revolves around a work by Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon'. Current owner the Duke of Sutherland wants to sell the painting and is prepared to 'accept' £50million for it from the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland. If he doesn't get it by the end of the year, he'll sell it on the private market, possibly to that current bĂȘte noir of British taste and decency, a 'Russian oligarch'.

I don't want to dwell on the inherent value of the painting itself. I don't much rate it, but clearly much of the art establishment does. Artists including Lucien Freud, Damien Hirst and David Hockney have supported the campaign to buy it. Tracey Emin presented an artists' petition to Downing Street, saying “We are building an Olympics that we can't afford and can't maintain afterwards. This country seems hell-bent on supporting a war which is so ugly. Why can't we celebrate things that are really beautiful?”

I can identify with this sentiment to some extent, but I think its more complicated than that. There are a lot of calls by progressives on the money that shouldn't be spent on war, or indeed on the Olympics, and buying a Titian painting may not rank above, say, tackling child poverty or a Green New Deal. That isn't to say we shouldn't spend anything on art and heritage, but there isn't, and neither should there be, an unlimited budget for such things. The National National Heritage Memorial Fund has pledged £10 million for 'Diana and Actaeon', but admits on its website that it normally has a “difficult task ... to decide what should be saved within the limited resources”. £50 million is a lot of money, no matter how irresponsibly large sums have been spent elsewhere.

Then there's the Duke of Sutherland himself. The current Duke is a descendent of the 1st Duke of Sutherland, George Leveson-Gower, who is best known for his role in the highland clearances. I mention this not to imply that the wealth of any member of the aristocracy is particularly legitimate, but to illustrate that it isn't. Giving him £50 million from public funds would be redistribution of wealth from ordinary people to a very rich man.

Hugh Kerr, a former MEP who was expelled from the Labour party for being too left-wing (or something) has a better idea: “We have had these paintings since 1945. We have looked after them, we have insured them, and they are part of Scotland's national heritage. Frankly, we should just nationalise them and take them into public ownership.” In the likely event that this doesn't happen however, should the government find a way of buying the paintings?

Absolutely not. The Duke is holding the country to ransom, and if we aren't paying up to Somalian pirates to save the lives of their hostages, we certainly shouldn't be paying him. Its up to the Duke if he wants to deny the country a historic piece of art for private gain. Perhaps the assorted ranks of the art establishment should be petitioning the Duke not to be so selfish, not asking the government to pay him out of the public purse. Either that or the likes of super-rich Damien Hirst could try dipping into their own pockets.

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