Metal left out in the open air is fair game it seems – electricity cables on the railway tracks, copper roof cladding, public works of art – the theft of any of them reprehensible, but it’s the last which hurts the most. The financial considerations aside, we know that the cables and the roof can be replaced, yet once Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen, melted down and sent through the cruel diode of entropy, we know something special and intangible has been lost forever.
The theft of public art is the theft of old family photographs, of heirloom jewellery and holiday knickknacks, and the theft of these items is more than the theft of the object alone, it’s the theft of our memories and our private heritage. You might say that if these items are valued only for the memories they represent, then why isn’t the memory alone sufficient?
Memories require prompts if they are not to dissipate into hazy recollections of once-had experiences, and and even if they didn’t, the recall is sweetened by the tangibility of these physical prompts. Where the theft of an heirloom marks the loss of private heritage, that of a public work of art threatens our shared heritage.
There’s little sense that can be made of it; as pointless to ask the petty thief why he doesn’t respect the privacy of the homeowner, as it is the art thief about his conscience. Our concerns are sadly orthogonal to theirs.
Any of these losses are upsetting then, but the only solace I can take, the only reinterpretation of those acts that might yield something of value, is to say: what if we view the theft of art as an act of political satire and an opportunity to reflect?
That there have been economic troubles recently hardly seems worth repeating, it’s been the backdrop to our news for five years now. What is newsworthy is that the economy continues to stumble – any slight rise is followed shortly thereafter by another lumbering, ungainly fall. The possibility of a full and complete recovery in the near future hardly seems plausible. Rather the question is, what will be the next contagion?
As a remedy, we’ve witnessed a regime of austerity and cuts to public finances, cuts which are at least as politically motivated as they are economically so. To give some indication, roughly 4.5% will be cut from the Arts Council England budget between 2013/2014 & 2014/2015, and certain councils, such as Westminster City, are cutting their arts budget completely!
Of course, some financial reality must be allowed to intrude, but what we must not permit is for this reduced budget to become the status quo, a baseline which is viewed as always open to further and further reduction, on the purported basis that it’s not important and not worth protecting.
To know the value provided by funding of the arts, we need merely remember the generous patronage provided by the House of Medici who inspired and sustained the Renaissance. My mention of this cultural outpouring from several centuries ago is no accident. We are blessed today with a dazzling wealth of music, art, theatre and literature provided by the masters of old. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Picasso, Shostakovich, Brecht, Camus and the rest – we can not rely on past glories; we must not indefinitely draw down on this resource and make no contribution of our own.
Society today is the beneficiary of all societies past. To be stingy in funding art, or to refuse to fund it at all, is a selfish act, not just for today but for future generations. That which we leave behind, or fail to leave, tells a story about us as a society and culture, and we have only one chance to write this postcard to the future, which says “Here is our contribution to the project of humanity, please enjoy!”
The thing with art, the one constant of it, true whatever the form or genre, is that there exists no reliable method of selecting a priori only those potential artworks that will come to be deemed astounding in the future. Moreover, the only way to guarantee that there will be any art in the category is to produce lots of art. To say nothing of the fact that art should represent the full spectrum of experience today and not just a single stratum.
A final thought: whatever money was paid to finance the composition of music in the time of Beethoven, is surely more than justified by his music alone, when we consider the pleasure it has brought to the many millions of listeners in the following 200 years. That’s the context, and the timescales, in which we must approach this subject.
To return to the present day, the theft of art by criminals is in fact a piece of performance art all of itself, a horrifying piece of political satire, one that is to witness and relive. The disrespect shown by the thieves towards art mirrors that of our government. They both are chipping away at our past heritage and preventing the formation of new.
Though it can feel like we’re powerless to stop either of them, as long as the arguments in favour of the arts and its funding continue to be made, perhaps we can halt the slide and, one day soon, reverse it. Otherwise, though there’ll always be a philistine element in society – those ungrateful, uncultured few – the danger is that we, the rest of society, will sink to join them.