Kingsley Amis bags a statue

Not sure whether this reflects the subject, but it appealed to me. (jenburn.blogspot.com)

Not sure whether this reflects the subject, but it appealed to me. (jenburn.blogspot.com)

The late Kingsley Amis wrote The Old Devils (1988) about a community of old art farts in Wales when one of their old school chums, “media Welshman” Alun Weaver, decides to end his long successful literary career in London and return home to Wales. He had sexual affairs long ago in this community, and so did his wife, the still beautiful Rhiannon, and all of this reverberates upon their return. In this passage, unrelated to sex, Alun presides at the unveiling of a statue of an even more celebrated Welsh poet:

To one side of the porch entrance there had stood, longer than anyone could remember, a short, dingy stone pillar supporting a life-sized figure too badly battered and weathered to be recognisable even as a man, but always vaguely supposed to have portrayed a saint. Today the whole thing was covered with a great red cloth ….

[The mayor] jerked at the end of an ornamental rope or cord that Charlie had not noticed before. With wonderful smoothness the red cloth parted and fell to reveal, standing on a plinth of what looked like olive-green marble, a shape of glossy yellow metal that was about the height of a human being without looking much more like one than the beat-up chunk of stone that had stood there before.

There was a silence that probably came less from horror than sheer bafflement, then a sudden rush of applause. The presumed sculptor, a little fellow covered in hair like an artist in a cartoon, appeared and was the centre of attention for a few seconds. Another youngster, who said he represented the Welsh Arts Council, started talking about money. It came on to rain, though not enough to bother a Welsh crowd. On a second glance, the object on the plinth did look a certain amount like a man, but the style ruled out anything in the way of portraiture, and Charlie felt he was probably not the only one to wonder whether some handy abstraction – the spirit of Wales, say – had pushed out the advertised subject. Those close enough, however, could see Brydan’s name on the plate along with his dates, 1913-1960.

After Alun’s speech, he joins his friends and they are soon joined by a group of arts officials, one of whom wants to discuss the statue:

“Well now,” he said in the kind of husky alto often put down to massive gin-drinking, “what’s the state of feeling about our new piece of sculpture?”

“Oh, Christ,” said Alun as if before he could stop himself. “Er … actually we haven’t discussed it, have we? It’s not what I’d call my field. Gwen, you’re good on art.”

“That’s sweet of you, Alun. Well, it hasn’t got any holes in it. You can say that much for it.”

The group begins to compare the sculpture’s £98,000 cost with that of a torpedo:

“If you don’t mind,” croaked the questioner, “could we forget about torpedoes for the moment and get back to the sculpture? You, Mr. …,” he turned to Charlie, “you haven’t said anything yet.”

“No, well … I thought it wasn’t at all figurative,” said Charlie rather complacently.

“Is that all? Has nobody anything more, er, more, er, more constructive to put forward?”

Nobody had.

“So nobody here shares my feeling that the Brydan monument is an exciting breakthrough for all of us in this town?”

Like everyone else, Charlie at once ruled out the possibility of any sort of irony being intended. There was general silence, with eyes on the floor, until Gwen said in a voice not intended to carry far, “If you’re going to call that, or anything like that, exciting, what do you call the late-night horror movie? When it’s slightly above average?” She frowned and smiled as never before.

Alun nodded weightily. “Very good point,” he said.

“My colleagues and I had hoped [said the art official] for a little bit of encouragement. Here we are going all out, fighting to bring the best in modern art to the people, to whom after all it belongs, and not to any fancy élite, and people like you, educated people, don’t want to know. You don’t, do you? You’re happier with your cosy, musty Victoriana. Safe I suppose it makes you feel. Anything challenging you give a wide berth to. Well, I take leave to doubt whether your reaction is typical. Good day to you.”

The man of position jerked his head at his aides to signal a move in a way that recalled a boss in a different kind of film, returning from a few paces off long enough to add, “You’re entitled to your opinions, it goes without saying, but they’re clearly based on ignorance, whereas the artist in question was selected and instructed by a panel of experts. Kindly take note of that.”

I thought Amis’s perception, at the end, of the authoritarian bent of the art bureaucracy was sharp. More broadly, the passage speaks to the reaction of a general public, even upper-tier sorts, to modern art and, by extension, modern architecture. General opinion on architecture, at least, is often more sophisticated than elite opinion, because the public has as much experience with it as elites do, and is not burdened by design education that eradicates common sense and natural intuition that favor tradition in aesthetic matters.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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